How to help a child when you suspect sensory food aversions

toddler boy crying at the table with a bowl of scrambled egg

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    Not all picky eating is simple. Some children just don’t eat and often parents are told ‘it’s just a phase’ or it’s a behavioural problem.

    Well what if I were to tell you that it wasn’t.

    Research tells us that the majority of children who refuse to eat either:

    1. can’t eat because they have a gap in their eating and drinking skills,
    2. won’t eat because it’s thoroughly unpleasant due to how it affects their sensory system.

    Essentially what I’m saying is that it’s not them being naughty, it’s not a behavioural issue, it’s not ‘all in their heads’, it’s all in their bodies.

    In this blog I’m going to address point 2, the sensory reasons for children not eating food.

    How children learn to eat

    Eating is one of the most complex tasks that human beings ever need to master. We think it’s simple, we just sit down and eat. But actually it’s far more complicated than that.

    It can take a typically developing child 2-3 years to learn how to eat. If your little one has difficulties along the way, this time extends significantly. 

    Learning to eat involves a whopping 32 step process(1) for each and every food, and that begins with the sensory system. 

    In addition to the sensory side of things children also learn to eat through cues in their environment and how we as parents interact around food in front of them.

    How the sensory system is involved

    Eating involves using all 8 (not 5) senses at the same time. These are:

    • Visual (sight)
    • Tactile (touch) 
    • gustatory (taste) 
    • olfactory (smell) 
    • auditory (hearing)  
    • proprioception (positioning or sense of self in space)
    • vestibular (balance)
    • interoception (how your body feels inside)

    Eating is the only thing that children do that engages all of their senses at exactly the same time.

    Children who struggle with eating may have difficulty processing what their senses are telling them.

    What is sensory processing? 

    Sensory processing is how your child interprets the world around them through their experiences. The sensory information is processed by their brain and they respond accordingly. 

    Children with sensory processing difficulties are either:

    • Over responsive, where there is a heightened awareness meaning they experience things more than others do.
    • Under responsive, where there is a lesser awareness, your child may not notice or needs a greater sensory input to experience feeling.

    Some children can have a mix of under responsiveness and over responsiveness to different senses. 

    Once your child has processed what they have experienced, they will respond. 

    A young girl sat in her high chair taking small bites of a plain, dry cracker.

    What are the 32 steps to eating and how does this fit in?

    Each of the 32 steps represents a level of tolerance for each of the 8 senses. They are grouped into 6 sensory milestones:

    • Tolerates
    • Interacts with food
    • Smells
    • Touches
    • Tastes
    • Eats

    Children can jump through the 32 steps quickly for some foods but get stuck on a single step for weeks, months or years. 

    Because eating is a multi-sensory task children must be able to manage all of their sensory experiences at the same time before a food is eaten. 

    Let me take you through these 6 sensory milestones one by one.

    Tolerates (Steps 1-5)

    Just seeing your food is part of learning to like it. And that’s what this first milestone is all about, being able to visually tolerate the food.

    Some visually sensitive children automatically avoid looking at the food as soon as they are in the same room as certain foods, they literally may not even be able to look at it. 

    Until a child can visually tolerate a food, they won’t be able to progress up the steps towards smelling or tasting the food, so this is where we start.

    Interacts with (steps 6-9)

    Interacting with food isn’t the same as touching the food; that comes later. In the interacting steps, your child is using objects or containers to interact with the food. If they are capable they could be helping prepare a meal in the kitchen, or helping serving themselves or others. Younger children can play dump and fill games with food or stirring the (cool) pot, washing fruits and veggies etc.

    Smells (steps 10-13)

    In this step your child will be working towards tolerating a stronger smell at each step. From simply being in the same room to leaning in close to take a sniff.

    Touch (14-24)

    This stage has the most steps as texture is one of the most complex senses to master. We’re working on tolerating touching with one fingertip and gradually getting closer to their mouth. 

    Taste (25-30)

    This is the first time food is going to the mouth and it’s step no 25 of 32! 

    They’re starting with just a tip of the tongue, taste or a brush of the lips, without expectation to bite, chew or swallow. Spitting food out at this stage is just fine.

    Eating (31-32)

    This is the final 2 steps where 32 is actually biting, chewing and swallowing normal mouthfuls of food. 

    A toddler has in his chair chair crying over a bowl of scrambled eggs

    How children learn to not eat

    Children eat multiple times a day and if their sensory systems are telling them it’s unpleasant, eating is quickly learned to be a negative experience.

    When negative experiences happen the body’s natural reaction is a stress response to escape the situation by either: 

    • fight – tantrums, kicking, hitting, arguments, throwing food, causing drama at the table 
    • flight – fidgeting, running away, avoiding going to school or friends houses for tea
    • freeze – breath holding, child closes down, won’t talk.

    On top of this they may have learned additional reasons for not-eating, read on for a mini psychology lesson on how children learn.

    Classical conditioning or learning through association

    Classical conditioning is also known as learning through association and was made famous by the scientist Pavlov and his dog back in 1897.

    Pavlov noticed that when his dog was presented with food he started to salivate. The food was the cue that something tasty was coming and the salivation was its body’s natural response.

    Pavlov introduced a bell ring at the same time as bringing out the food and repeated this over and over.

    He then noticed that the dog would salivate whenever the bell rang, even if there was no food.

    He concluded that the dog had become ‘conditioned’ to associate the bell with a tasty meal.

    We see this in real life all the time now, from the desire to eat popcorn at the cinema (we’ve classically conditioned ourselves to associate eating with the big screen) to your child wanting an ice cream whenever you go to the park. 

    However, classical conditioning also plays a huge role in not eating. 

    If your child has had a negative experience with food, for example they are over responsive to the auditory sense (hearing) and they are being asked to eat their lunch in a noisy dining hall at school. It’s going to be really unpleasant for them and they are not going to be able to eat. 

    Now the lunch hall has been classically conditioned towards not eating.

    Operant conditioning or learning through consequence

    Operant conditioning is known as learning through consequence, almost like forming a habit.

    In childhood, positive reinforcements are frequently used to encourage more of the behaviour we want to see. 

    For example if a child eats a new food they might get a sticker on their chart, therefore the child will eat more of that new food.

    However if when your child doesn’t eat, you bring out the i-pad (in order to distract them), you have positively reinforced the not-eating and they’ll do more of that.

    What is a sensory food aversion?

    A sensory food aversion is when a child refuses to eat certain foods because of their sensory experience of that food.

    It’s often labelled picky eating but children with sensory feeding aversions can actually stop eating because it’s so unpleasant.

    Advice like “they’ll eat when they’re hungry” isn’t true of these children.

    Children with sensory aversions to food are sometimes referred to as having a paediatric feeding disorder, ARFID or misdiagnosed as having an eating disorder. Many will go on to require tube feeding or rely on nutritional supplements as a means for survival.

    These children do not grow out of it, they need specialist feeding therapy in order to get better.

    A happy girl holding a ham and lettuce sandwich

    Is a sensory food aversion all about the texture of food?

    In short, no! But a tactile (texture) sensory aversion can be one of the most challenging to overcome.

    Here’s what I mean:

    When a child is given a plate of food, the other sensory aspects don’t change too much as they eat it.  

    The smell stays the same, the food looks the same, there might be a small change in temperature going from warm to cool but that’s about it.

    But the big changes are in the texture.

    Think about when you eat a sandwich. 

    Not only are there different textured foods packed into each bite – bread, lettuce, cucumber, ham etc, but with every chew, the feel of the food changes. 

    It goes from one soft lump, to multiple pieces of food that the tongue needs to keep track of. 

    As they chew more, what was once a bite of sandwich is now one wet ball rolling around their mouth! 

    Your child must be able to tolerate all of these different textures in order to successfully be able to eat the sandwich.

    Does my child need a diagnosis?

    A diagnosis can be hard to get. In the UK the NHS has very limited services, often only available in big cities and limited to children with other medical issues.

    However not having a diagnosis doesn’t mean that treatment should be any different. 

    You can speak to a private feeding therapist if you are concerned or you can make an appointment with your child’s GP to see if they are able to refer you to a specialist service in your area.

    How can I help my child if I think they have sensory issues with food?

    First things first, understanding that your child is not being naughty, difficult or fussy is very important. Avoiding food is not something that they are choosing to do.

    Understand that it’s their body telling them that the food isn’t right for them.

    There are some key steps that you can have in place to give your child every chance of practising their sensory learning and they are all based around Positive Food Parenting which I’ve linked to here.

    Next, comes individual feeding therapy. Please do arrange this for your child. They won’t get better without it. 

    I practice SOS feeding therapy and that is where I use my knowledge of these 32 sensory steps to eating to gently advance children’s sensory preferences to help them learn to like challenging foods.

    I also want to make a note here that typical fussy eating advice will not work. You may hear people tell you about Ellen Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding where the parent provides the food but you leave it up to the child to decide whether to eat or not eat.

    This isn’t appropriate for a child with sensory or food aversions, it’s something you might come to practice later, after they have learned to eat more foods.

    A young girl in the garden holding a bunch of homegrown carrots

    Play with a purpose

    You can also support your child’s sensory learning through play. 

    This is a dialled down version of traditional messy play as a child with sensory processing difficulties will likely not be able to manage very messy play.

    Start with dry foods that don’t stick and age appropriate games.

    A 4 year old might enjoy making a farmyard scene with toy animals and dry weetabix as the animals feed. Can they help the horses eat their hay? 

    A 3 year old might enjoy playing with dry rice. Scatter rice in an oven dish and see what shapes you can draw with a spoon. 

    A 2 year old might drive a carrot car up Mummy’s arm? Can they drive a carrot car up their own arm? 

    There are endless possibilities for play with a purpose but choosing just the right entry step for your child is important. Too hard and it can have the opposite effect, too easy and they’re not going to move forwards up those 32 steps.

    How to provide a balanced meal when your child has sensory issues

    At the end of the day, you cannot make your child eat what they don’t want to eat!  I think that this is often a message that gets lost when parents are trying to get help for their child. I just want to say I understand.

    Depending on how restrictive their eating is, this may be very difficult to do without professional help. 

    You can do your best by offering a balanced plate at each meal and snack. Aim for there to be one protein food, one starchy carbohydrate rich food and a fruit or vegetable.

    For children whose diets are less restrictive you can aim to provide food that  provides all of the food groups across a day and the week. 

    Almost all children with restrictive eating will need a supplement to top them up, some will need just a multivitamin and mineral supplement, others will need something more substantial such as a supplement drink like Paediasure or Fortini. 

    It’s important that a dietitian recommends this for you and not just the GP, as GP’s have very little nutrition knowledge, and not all supplements contain the same nutrients. Excessive intake of some vitamins and minerals can be just as harmful as a deficiency. 

    If your child has very restrictive eating, please get in touch as they may need more support than what you can do on your own at home.

    Final thoughts

    When you’re dealing with a sensory food aversion your child isn’t going to grow out of it and it won’t go away on their own. Expert advice and feeding therapy will be needed. 

    You can absolutely try some of the ideas I have linked to here, which may move them forwards but for them to progress to normal eating they will need professional help.

    And if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here and want to work with me further then you may want to join the waitlist for the Happy Healthy Eaters Club

    This members-only club teaches you how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

    You’ll learn about parenting techniques as well as nutrition so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins). 

    It’s all about making you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

    Our aim is for your little one to become excited to try new foods, to make your family mealtimes are a breeze without a reward, bribe, or iPad insight…oh  and that you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. 

    And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open

    Sarah Almond Bushell Registered Dietitian and Children's Nutritionist
    Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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    meet Sarah

    I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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