Published January 30, 2009 by Nancy
The standard advice you get for a fussy eater toddler is “Just put a variety of foods on his plate. When he gets hungry enough, he’ll eat.”
Great advice — for most kids. But for toddlers with sensory processing issues, it’s not going to work.
We tried it. At two years of age, he was down to eating just five foods. Heck, you’ll try anything. And it sounds so reasonable.
But after a month of more screaming and distress than usual (which was a lot!), I put him on the scales.
He was down two pounds.
So we pulled out the five foods and let him at it as much as he wanted, all day long, till that weight went back on again. And we didn’t try tampering with his diet again till he was more than three years old.
Kids with sensory issues will go down with the ship. If they have to starve to avoid painful and distressing food sensations, then that’s what they’ll do. The pain of hunger is just one more type of pain, something they experience near continuously every day. Especially at the toddler age, they can’t distinguish between one type of pain and another. So you have to swim with the current, not against it.
Here are some tips for feeding toddlers with sensory issues:
1. Give them lots of food.
2. Figure out their preference patterns (e.g., smooth-textured foods, cold foods), and keep introducing more options in that pattern. Aim for foods with the highest nutritional content (e.g., dairy, protein, fruit, vegetable), and avoid introducing new low-nutrient foods (e.g., pasta, breads, starches).
3. Avoid pestering them about food. It’s distressing enough for them. Work in lots of rewards (e.g., extra desserts). We found that mini teddy-bear cookies were great rewards for taking a bite of something (e.g., eat one pea, get one cookie, eat another pea, get another cookie). As long as you keep it light and playful, it becomes something pleasant.
4. Experiment and push your boundaries of what you consider kid food. There is nothing wrong with eating tomato cocktail with a spoon, making gelatin out of pureed fruit, or eating pumpkin pie for breakfast. These are all fantastic food choices.
5. Provide stimulation. Turn on the music during mealtimes. Some kids settle down to eat if they’re listening to Mozart or sound effects music, but others prefer 1950s rock’n roll to keep their senses awake. Others like to have a dot-to-dot puzzle to work on while eating.
6. Keep in mind that in the toddler years, your focus is on health (his) and survival (his and yours). With all the sensory issues (and probably screaming) you are dealing with during the day, you need to keep meals relaxing and sustaining. It is too easy for him to learn to fear foods.