feeding therapy Fort Myers

When your child isn’t eating well – no matter the reason – the effect ripples to nearly every area of growth and development. Adverse impacts include weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, problems with daily functioning, sleep disturbances, lack of energy and lagging brain function. It can also impede a child’s ability to participate in important social activities, such as family mealtime and holiday traditions, and puts stress on everyone at the table.

Feeding therapy is recommended for children diagnosed with conditions like dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), odynophagia (pain while swallowing) and sometimes those with a tracheostomy tube. But therapy is also an effective solution for children with feeding disorders, sometimes called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorders.

Feeding therapy at FOCUS Therapy Fort Myers helps to address the underlying reasons a child may be struggling to consume a variety of healthy, nutritious foods. No matter how “picky” your child or what challenges they face, peer-reviewed research plus our own track record of success with feeding therapy shows it can be done with patience, positive reinforcement, play and commitment to the process.

Do Picky Eaters Really Need Feeding Therapy?

It’s a common assumption parents should hold off on pursuing feeding therapy (if at all) for “picky eaters” because “it’s something all kids go through” and “they’ll outgrow it.”

Pediatric feeding disorders affect about 1 in 4 children. Not all need feeding therapy, as there is a range of severity, but the rate is known to be higher among children with developmental disabilities (with as many as 8 in 10 children with disabilities having an identified feeding disorder). Early intervention leads to the best results.

You know your child best. If your child has difficulty swallowing or chewing, is very picky, gags, throws food, has major meltdowns at mealtimes and/or absolutely refuses to eat (or eats nothing beyond a very limited list of preferred foods), our FOCUS Fort Myers team of feeding therapists can help.

Our speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists are trained and certified in the SOS Approach to Feeding Therapy. SOS stands for “Sequential Oral Sensory.” This play-based, child-led oral feeding program was developed by a pediatric psychologist with decades of experience studying/working with children with feeding disorders. The SOS Approach to Feeding Therapy is an effective way to identify and address complex and often puzzling feeding disorders. It involves exploring food in a way that’s fun and non-stressful, slowly encouraging toleration, touching and eventually tasting and eating.

The SOS Approach to feeding is nationally and internationally recognized, and our speech therapists and occupational therapists use it complementary to traditional treatments for dysphagia and/or odynophagia, as well as on its own when the problem appears to be more rooted in sensory or behavior issues.

Causes of Childhood Feeding and Swallowing Disorders

The American Speech-Language Hearing Association notes there are numerous causes of feeding and swallowing disorders among children. These can include:

  • Disorders of the nervous system (meningitis, cerebral palsy)
  • Reflux
  • Cleft palate or cleft lip
  • Premature birth/low birth weight
  • Autism
  • Sensory processing disorder (hypersensitivity to smell, texture, taste)
  • Breathing difficulty (asthma and other respiratory diseases)
  • Neck and head problems
  • Muscle weakness in neck and face
  • Certain medications
  • Behavior problems
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD

If you are concerned your child has a feeding or swallowing problem, your child’s pediatrician can examine growth charts and order tests to identify a medical problem. Based on those results, the doctor may refer you to a speech-language pathologist for feeding therapy.

In some cases, our therapists may be already working with a child when we notice/parents raise the issue of feeding difficulty. We can then merge SOS feeding strategies with traditional treatments aimed at strengthening the mouth muscles and improving the range of tongue motion so the child can suck from a bottle, drink from a cup, chew foods and accept encouragement to try new foods.

Interdisciplinary  teamwork between speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and ABA therapists at FOCUS Fort Myers Therapy has proven successful not only in helping children successfully try and safely consume a variety of foods - but to learn to enjoy eating.

Red Flags for Feeding Difficulties

Some conditions, such as a cleft palate or cerebral palsy, are inherently associated with swallowing and feeding disorders.

Other times, the cause may be less clear.

Dr. Kay A. Toomey, SOS Feeding Approach creator, offers these “Red Flags” parents, pediatricians and speech therapists can watch for to determine whether a child is a candidate for feeding therapy.

Signs to watch for include when a child’s eating history/habits or other conditions have resulted in:

  • Ongoing poor weight gain on the growth chart
  • Ongoing gagging, coughing or choking during meals
  • Ongoing problems with vomiting
  • Traumatic choking incident
  • Nasal reflux
  • Trouble coordinating their eating/breathing
  • Severe “picky eating” reported at two or more pediatrician checkups
  • Inability to transition to baby food purees by the time they are 10-months-old
  • Inability to wean from breast/bottle to a cup by age 16 months
  • Inability/refusal to accept solid foods at 1-year-old
  • Avoiding/aversion to certain types of nutrition/textures
  • Range of foods limited to less than 20 (especially if those foods are being dropped with no new replacements)
  • Infant crying/arching back during majority of meals
  • Family distress over food (we often hear, “dinnertime is a battle”)
  • Not only parents but other caregivers find the child is difficult to feed

No single issue means feeding therapy is an imperative, but none should be automatically dismissed dismissed either. Our FOCUS Fort Myers feeding therapy team will examine the checklist in totality and hear your concerns. If feeding therapy is deemed medically necessary, we’ll develop a comprehensive plan-of-care and carefully monitor your children’s progress. You’ll receive regular updates after each session - often including videos and photos - as well as regular educational resources and tips for how to practice at home.

Why the SOS Approach to Feeding Therapy in Fort Myers Really Works

We know the SOS Approach to Feeding Therapy works not just because of Dr. Toomey’s cited research and results – but because we’ve seen results at FOCUS too!

Success stories at FOCUS include children who at first:

  • Threw everything but dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets with copious ketchup on the ground;
  • Eschewed all fruits and vegetables (leading to painful constipation and other growth/development problems);
  • Refused to give up their bottle/sippy cup.

With skilled, compassionate therapists trained in the SOS Approach, parental involvement and consistency, these children too are thriving, eating a much greater variety – including fruits, vegetables and proteins.

One of the reasons we believe the SOS Approach to Feeding is so successful is because it follows several of the core principles FOCUS Fort Myers Therapy promotes in all aspects of treatment:

It’s a “whole child” approach that is child-led, play-based and encourages interdisciplinary teamwork.

A child is not merely a mouth, tongue or an esophagus. Consider that there are seven different complex systems in the human body we use when eating. That means feeding disorders can be as complicated as the individual. We call for “all-hands-on-deck” in cooperation to formulate an effective feeding therapy plan.

Research has shown that “forcing” a child to eat any food under duress all but ensures the effort will be neither effective nor pleasant – and it can damage your child’s trust in you, other caretakers and adults in general. That’s why keeping it low-pressure and FUN is so important!

The SOS Approach to Feeding practiced by the FOCUS Fort Myers feeding therapy team will incrementally build your child’s comfort, independence and enjoyment of food. We explore it, learn about its unique properties (color, shape, texture, smell). We begin first encouraging your child to tolerate non-preferred foods on the plate. Then we play with it (make trains or funny faces, count them, stack them, color with them or put it in clear plastic bags and smoosh). Eventually, we’ll work our way to encouraging your child to “kiss” the food (getting it to their lips and under their nose) - and ultimately taste and eat it.

It’s not an overnight process (as is true for any kind of therapy). Our pediatric feeding therapists at FOCUS Fort Myers Therapy are dedicated to this effective treatment because we know it works! If you have questions, we’re happy to provide additional information on how this approach can be tailored to your child’s individual needs to boost and maintain long-term optimal nutrition and health.