Common Contributing Factors
Many children these days, especially those with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, developmental delays and learning disabilities, are picky eaters. Traditionally, these children are thought of as having behavioral problems, which may be true, but what’s not well known is that there may be physiological and cultural reasons contributing to their eating challenges.
Common physiological issues that may be causing or contributing to picky eating are:
- Oral motor issues
- Low muscle tone
- Tongue tie
- Sensory processing issues
- Acid reflux
- Retained reflexes
- Limited communication skills
- Poor motor-planning skills (apraxia or dyspraxia)
In addition, common cultural roadbocks such as being told not to play with your food and to clean your plate may be making the problem worse. Parents of picky eaters are often told that children will not starve themselves, but in some cases this is not true because developmental delays and sensory dysfunction can often impede hunger signals.
A Holistic Approach to Food Challenges
Just Take a Bite sets forth a comprehensive plan for addressing food challenges. First of all, the book defines the criteria of a picky eater and then reviews the timeline of oral-motor development so that parents can know what can be expected of their child at a given age. Many times throughout the book, parents are reminded that the use of coercion often backfires and that it’s important to take a fun, slow, thoughtful approach to eating challenges.
The comprehensive treatment plan is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It first focuses on a child’s individual needs in environmental controls. This includes:
- Setting consistent mealtimes
- Selecing appropriate dining locations
- Creating a supportive climate
- Designing meals to include at least one favorite food
- Setting age-appropriate portion sizes
- Addressing food jags
Gastrointestinal and Physical Development
Gastrointestinal function, adequate postural control and oral-motor function are addressed in the second part of the plan. Many of these children have acid reflux, which may be causing them severe discomfort when eating. Instead of relying on acid-reducing medications, we advocate for implementing an elimination diet or a gut-healing diet to the heal the gastrointestinal tract. Often, removing a problematic food such as dairy or adding in probiotics can resolve this health issue.
An example of addressing physical development for a child with vestibular-processing issues is that he or she will typically benefit from being positioned in a stable, well-supported position so that the feet are touching the floor or a stable surface because the child’s body must first attend to vestibular input before attending to eating.
Children with dysfunction in proprioceptive processing (the sensory input received from muscle movement) will likely have better success with eating after doing a few gross-motor exercises such as wheelbarrows or donkey kicks beforehand. These exercises and other tips show how muscles and posture affect oral-motor skills and the ability to eat.
Stages of Sensory Development for Eating
This section of the book lays out a staged plan for eating in a playful and child-led manner. This plan includes activities and lessons that address a child’s potential sensory issues about food in the following order:
- Acceptance of a new food without eating it
- Eating new foods
The whole idea of the book is to create success in small steps in a fun, non-stressful way. The plan may take many months to complete, but start slowly and build on your child’s accomplishments. After reading this book and employing the tips and activities in the comprehensive plan, there’s an excellent chance that your child’s food challenges can be resolved, especially if your child is younger.