By: Laura Van Zandt, OTR/L
Around 2 years of age, children enter the age of autonomy where they become aware of their individuality and become increasingly independent. This is also the age where they become increasing comfortable testing limits. Around this age, kids are most likely to start becoming “picky eaters.” By the time children enter preschool, many have begun to move past this phase and start to expand their food preferences; however, some children don’t move out of the picky eating stage and continue to refuse foods. Foods once liked may become dropped and not added back into their diet. The big difference between typical picky eating and avoidant /restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID) is that typical picky eating fades away in conjunction with repeated food exposure and a positive mealtime environment.
Children with ARFID may also have other health issues or conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, sensory processing, food allergies, constipation, and/or anxiety. Some children who were born prematurely may have required breathing and feeding tubes during hospitalization which can increase oral sensitivity. A child who had a choking episode in the past, was forced to eat, or who had multiple respiratory infections at a time when she was learning to eat may have developed negative associations with eating. Some children may have a sensory system which is offended by the texture, smell, odor, or appearance of food. These sensitivities may alter how kids experience food and result in their refusing to eat many foods. Anxiety can stem from the food itself, especially if it’s unfamiliar or disliked, or it can result from other factors such as pressure to eat at mealtime or a negative memory of eating. Older kids may experience social anxiety around their peers.
Parents often have good intuition and know when something is not right with their child’s eating patterns. Some signs of AFRID include refusing food due to its smell, texture or flavor, or a generalized lack of interest in eating. Children may have poor eating or feeding abilities, such as preferring pureed foods or a refusal to self-feed. They may be underweight or demonstrate slowed growth due to inadequate or poor nutrition. They may also show signs of anxiety or fear of eating. If you feel like your child’s eating patterns is moving beyond typical picky eating, please schedule an appointment with a pediatric occupational or speech therapist that specializes in feeding.
What can be done:
- Schedule a comprehensive evaluation with an occupational or speech therapist can assist you in helping rule in/out other medical conditions which may also be influencing your child’s eating behaviors and patterns. A therapist may also be able to make recommendations to further evaluate nutrition or evaluation for gastrointestinal issues causing discomfort or pain influencing feeding. They will help develop a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses all different angles of feeding.
- Read occupational therapists Maureen Karwowski’s blog regarding playing with your food. Research suggests that when too much negative pressure is placed on the child for eating, the child’s appetite may also decrease and could spur an emotional response leaving the child to dread mealtimes. Vice versa, additional research also suggests that when children are allowed to mess with their food and are given permission to touch, handle, and even squash foods they are actually more likely eat them. Allowing your child to handle food without the expectation to eat the food allows them to gradually desensitize their body to the sights, smells, and feeling of a variety of food. Allowing your child to play with food helps to build new brain pathways that help to reshape prior negative experiences with food.
- Recruit your child’s help. If you do not already meal plan, start meal planning and involving your child as much as possible in the process. When at the grocery store, ask your child to pick out food on the grocery list (even if it is not food your child regularly eats). At home, encourage your child to help rinse fruits and vegetables, stir batter, use scissors to cut herbs, or set the table. During mealtimes, serve dishes family style where everyone passes the different food bowls.
- Be patient and start very small. Your child might need repeated exposure to try a new food. You may also need to start by presenting a single bite of a vegetable or a fruit versus presenting a lot of the food immediately off the bat. Sometimes, even reading books about different foods, might be the place to start with your child.
- Think of fun and creative ways to present the same food. For example, if you child is learning how to like pizza, you can try serving pizza on a tortilla shell or on an English muffin. The following are a few books on food that are good to read with children:
- Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z by Lois Ehlert
- Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
- I Will Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
- The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
- Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert
- Feast for 10 by Cathryn Falwell
- Enroll your child in a food group. Easter Seals has routinely been offering an occupational therapy and speech therapy group called “Fun with Food” that helps children learn how to explore foods using all their senses, including touch, smell, sight, and taste. Each session will utilize sensory “warm up” games prior to heading to the kitchen for our snacks. Parents are encouraged to continue with food exploration at home based on weekly recommendations following each session.
Learn more about our occupational therapy services at http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html.