Why does your child want the same foods over and over again? Why are mealtimes a struggle? We might think he’s just being stubborn, like his dad. Or that he just really loves those veggie straws. There is a chance though that there are underlying issues that are making eating more challenging, even uncomfortable for your child. As a speech therapist who works with children with feeding challenges, part of my work is to screen for underlying causes to picky eating and refer to other healthcare specialists so that your child is at their best for learning to eat new foods. I recommend parents take a look at the following:
1. Check up on those teeth. How are your child’s teeth? Do they need a dental check up? Are they super anxious about letting anyone near their mouths? Find a good pediatric dentist to rule out cavities or other issues that might be making chewing uncomfortable.
2. How are the things going in the bathroom? If your child isn’t using the bathroom daily, there may be a reason he doesn’t want to eat. If you had an upset, bloated stomach, think of how painful eating would be. Talk with your doctor about why he might not be going to the bathroom. A common cause of constipation can be too little fiber. And I realize your child isn’t at the stage where they’re going to start munching on brussell sprouts, but don’t worry, we’ll get there. Another reason behind less frequent visits to the bathroom can be due to a food sensitivity with dairy being the number one culprit. Talk to your doctor to find out why (he may refer you to an allergist, a dietitian, or a nutritionist) and in the meantime, we’ll also discuss other ways to get in that fiber!
3. The five senses. Your child’s five senses (actually six senses when we include their vestibular system which means their sense of balance) can impact their ability to eat. If your child appears to be very sensitive to touch or seeks out a lot of touch (like they’re crashing into everything all of the time), becomes easily upset or seem to get overwhelmed by noise, there may be a sensory processing issue occurring. An occupational therapist specialized in this area can help your child learn to integrate the sight, sound, touch, smell, and visual (and balance) information that they’re getting so that the body is in a calmer, more ready state to eat.
4. Tethered oral tissue. Tethered oral tissue refers to lip or tongue attachments (tongue ties) that may be causing your child difficulty having the range of motion they need with their tongue and/or lips to chew their food. If your child had difficulty breastfeeding that wasn’t due to milk supply but more so to latch, this can be a good indicator. An SLP or OT specialized in this area can help to identify when a tethered oral tissue may be impacting feeding and refer to an ENT or dentist for a diagnosis. If your child is still breastfeeding, it would be best to speak with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultation.
5. Abs of Steel? If your child has core weakness or has a condition that results in hypotonia (low muscle tone), they may have more difficulty eating. If your child does not have the strength to sit up without staying propped up constantly on their elbows or without leaning forward or backward when eating, your child may need improved muscle strength and precision to be a better eater. Working with a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist depending on where the areas of weakness are can improve your child’s ability to eat.
It can feel like quite the journey at times to get at the root of a child’s feeding difficulties. It is a journey well worth taking as a child’s eating habits are a strong predictor of their health as an adult. Often children have had an underlying condition or difficulty with chewing a certain texture of food and have learned to avoid entire food textures, food groups, or everything but Veggie Straws. Understanding why you child might be having difficulty feeding gives us more compassion for his difficulties at mealtime and helps us to get to the root cause so that we get them feeding better and being healthier sooner. This information is intended to substitute medical advice. If you have any concerns about your child’s feeding, speak with your doctor.