When does picky eating become a disability? Fort Myers OT (occupational therapy) services for children may be necessary for picky eaters when severe aversions to certain foods morph into “problem feeding,” a significant hindrance to healthy growth and development.
Parents of picky eaters can easily feel consumed by mealtime battles. They aren’t alone.
An 11-year longitudinal study of 120 kids published in the journal Eating Behaviors revealed that at any given time, between 13 and 22 percent of kids were reported by parents to be “picky eaters.” (Other researchers have put the figure as high as 50 percent.) About 40 percent of picky eaters kept it up for 2 years or more. This was different from those who simply went through short-burst phases of strong dislike for one food or another.
Instead, as our Fort Myers OT providers have seen, truly picky “problem” eaters consume an extremely limited variety of foods, even requiring it to be prepared in certain ways. They tend to show much stronger dislike for most foods and throw major tantrums. Some simply refuse to eat.
“What we see is their pickiness is extremely restrictive,” said Fort Myers OT Krystle Hofstetter. “They’ll eat just two or three items – and that’s it.”
The good news is: We can help!
At FOCUS, we have both occupational therapists and speech therapists trained in a technique known as the Sequential Oral Sensory Feeding Approach, or S.O.S. It helps introduce children to foods with different textures, flavors, shapes, colors, smells and sizes – at their own pace and with positive reinforcement.
“He’ll Eat When He’s Hungry” and Other Myths
You may have heard advice from well-meaning (but misunderstanding) friends and family that your child will “eat when he’s hungry.” Many meal-makers try this out of desperation – but find it doesn’t work. If you are at that point, you may need to consider there is more going on than simple stubbornness.
The most common underlying issues with problem feeding include:
- Sensory processing difficulty;
- Impaired proprioceptive input;
- Motor planning problems.
With sensory processing difficulty, children don’t like the way it feels. They may spit it out before they even swallow it. They may be incapable of any interaction with most foods, can’t stand it on their plates or may not even enter the house if the smell is overpowering. Sensory processing disorder is frequently (but not necessarily) an issue for children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It’s not limited to children with this diagnosis either.
A child with impaired proprioceptive input, meanwhile, struggles with body awareness. As it relates to feeding, the child is unable to sense where the food is in their mouth. This can make it a little scary to bite into food when it squishes or shatters because they aren’t able to control and manipulate it.
Picky eating could also be the result of motor planning problems. That means a child has trouble planning the physical movements of the jaw, cheek and tongue necessary to push food into their teeth, chew or move the food toward the back of their mouth to swallow.
“All of this means that allowing a child to ‘get hungry enough’ isn’t going to solve the problem,” Hofstetter explained. “That’s why therapeutic intervention is needed.”
How a Fort Myers OT Can Help “Picky” Eaters
The S.O.S. Approach to Feeding is a careful technique developed by Dr. Kay Toomey that addresses each of these underlying issues that can lead to “problem feeding.”
It is an interdisciplinary method that involves potentially up to 32 steps, depending on how severe the child’s aversions or difficulties are. There may be certain exercises to strengthen oral-facial muscles, and there is usually a process of progressive desensitization to get a child used to food. We start by placing it in the room, then looking at, touching, smelling, playing with and even kissing it before the final phase of actually licking/tasting/chewing/swallowing. This happens over a period of days, weeks and even months.
“We have had great success with SOS feeding therapy, absolutely,” Hofstetter said. “Parents have really been stunned at the progress we’re able to make. But the key really is to stay consistent at home.”
There is absolutely no force-feeding allowed. This has to be done on their own terms, at their own pace.
When problem feeding stems from one of the aforementioned issues, it’s not a “battle of wills.” You won’t win by using punishment, bribes or begging. It’s a matter of working together with the entire family on board, keeping it positive and staying on-task.
Parents of picky eaters can discuss these matters first with their primary physician, who may make a referral. Our Fort Myers OT clinic also welcomes initial consultations to see whether a more in-depth evaluation and possible treatment through therapy is the best course of action. If you’re already receiving Fort Myers OT services and are curious about SOS feeding therapy – just ask!
FOCUS offers pediatric occupational therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.
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