Thursday, March 1, 2018

Therapy Tip: Mistakes to Avoid for Picky Toddlers

It's Therapy Thursday here on the blog. This is the day I share a tip based upon my experience as a mother of a child with special needs and a pediatric speech-language pathologist. Today's tip is:

Mistakes to Avoid for Picky Toddlers

For my job, I often evaluate toddlers with picky eating habits and determine if their eating is extreme enough to qualify for feeding therapy. Over the years, I have talked with many families about their child's food preferences and patterns. I have directly worked with many toddlers who have restrictive diets (eating from only 1 or 2 food groups or a total of less than 5 different foods), gag easily, or avoid certain textures.

Feeding therapy is interesting work. Every child is different and responds uniquely when work is started to expand their diets. The work done during therapy is important but what is done at home is vital as well.

In the years of working with families, I have come to see some common mistakes at home. These mistakes aren't the cause of the child's feeding issues, but we definitely need to correct these mistakes when we get serious about adding new foods to a child's diet.

Mistake #1: Offering the same foods to the child.
This is the number one biggest mistake that I see parents making. I understand how it happens. The child eats only a certain set of foods. In frustration and over time, the parent begins to serve those same foods to the child. Then the child begins expecting these same foods. It's a vicious cycle that happens before a parent realizes it.

It is really important to offer foods to the child that they don't normally eat. This can come formally by putting a new food on their plate or informally by simply offering the child a bite of food from the adult's plate. It can also be offering a new food for a snack before resorting back to the familiar food. Bottom line, even if we know the child won't eat a new food, it's important to keep offering it to remind the child that new foods are a normal part of daily life.

Mistake #2: Letting the child dictate what's on their plate. 
You may think this mistake is like the first, but it's slightly different. In addition to serving the same foods to the child, another mistake is to never put something new on the child's plate. I don't care if a child eats it or not, but I want the child to tolerate something new on their plate. Children who are extremely picky and need me to work with them will often get upset with merely the presence of a new food on their plate.

Before I expect them to eat a new food, first I want them to tolerate it on their plate without pressure to eat it. I want them to be ok with the fact that I have added ketchup next to their chicken nuggets or that I have put raisins next to their crackers. This does a couple of things. First, this will help expose them to new foods in a no pressure situation. If the child seems fine with it on their plate, then I encourage them to touch or smell or even pick it up and throw it away. Secondly, this promotes the child to interact with food in ways besides just eating. You never know too- the child might just decide to try something one day!

Mistake #3: Only having food interactions during mealtimes. 
If your child is a picky eater, it is important to have some interactions with food outside of meal time. These opportunities encourage the child to touch food or simply be around it without any pressure to eat.

Have the child help in the kitchen by preparing food for other people or assisting with snacks. They can help make a sandwich by putting the meat or cheese on the bread. They can put vegetables in a pot before it's heated. You can make a trail mix with the child and let them add cereal, raisins, or pretzels together. If you are familiar with sensory bins, then you can use foods as a base for them as a way for them to engage with food in play. For these bins, I have put cereal, dry noodles, dry beans, pretzels, etc. in a big Tupperware container with spoons, little figures, and other small toys to allow the child to dig in the food for a sensory play experience. (If you need more info on sensory bins, click here or click here for even more.) Generally speaking, eventually these interactions should lead to the child being more comfortable with food and possible deciding to taste something. Usually, the kids I work with in feeding therapy will be very anxious when we are doing these food interactions even though I am not asking them to eat anything, so this is a good activity for them.

The bottom line: Picky and problematic eating often needs some changes at home to promote new additions to the child's diet. Little things like the ones mentioned today should not be discounted. Picky eaters take lots of time to change habits, trial-and-error with foods, repeated exposures, and many changes to help expand diets. If you find yourself making these mistakes with your child, it's not too late to correct them! 

Therapy Thursday is for educational purposes only and not intended as therapeutic advice. 

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