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When Sensory Issues Impact Food and Eating in Children

For children with sensory issues, introducing new foods can be a difficult and uncomfortable journey. This is when the dislike of new foods goes beyond “fussy eating”.

 

When Sensory Issues Impact Food and Eating in Children

What are Sensory Issues in children?

Sensory issues can present in many ways. It affects the way a child’s body processes, and reacts to, different sensations. This can include the way things feel, look, smell, sound or taste. A child with sensory issues may react to these sensations in a way that doesn’t make sense to their parents or carers, such as screaming, crying, dry retching, and so on. It is important to remember that these reactions are not fueled by logic, therefore the root cause of these issues is more than just “picky eating”, and needs to be treated as such.


What is a sensory food aversion?

Sensory food aversions are negative responses to the sensory properties of some foods. Some sensory qualities may elicit more of a response than others, and may cause children to dry retch, vomit or refuse particular foods. For example, it may be the mushy texture that they dislike, or the smell of a particular food.


Sensory aversions can limit the range of foods children will accept and can cause deficiencies in nutrients if left untreated. This often occurs if whole food groups are avoided. As a carer, it can be difficult to understand why these responses occur. Early intervention and gentle encouragement are imperative when it comes to reducing the impact of sensory food aversions.


sensory food aversions

Managing Sensory Food Aversion in Children

Sensory food aversions can be frustrating and concerning. Below are some tips on how you can assist your children in familiarising themselves with the sensory properties of foods:


Tips to improve sensory food aversions

1. Create a mealtime routine

Developing a routine before each meal will help your child prepare for the meal to come. This lets your child know that a meal will be served soon and can help get them into the mindset for eating. This might look like washing your hands together and sitting at the table ready to eat.


2. Include “safe” foods with every meal

Including foods that your child enjoys, and is comfortable eating, reduces the load of stress placed on them during mealtimes. Trial providing “safe foods” first, as this may warm up their senses and get them prepared for the next foods which may have different sensory properties.


3. Start small

Include only very small amounts of a new food, and only a few new foods, at a time. This may help to avoid overwhelming your child with too many “scary” looking foods and may help to reduce the stress at mealtimes.


4. Play with foods outside of mealtimes

The expectation to eat a new food, when it is the first time you have ever seen it, can be daunting. Slowly encourage new foods in a “zero expectation” environment. This is where your child can explore the sensory properties of new foods, without the pressure of eating them. This might look like finger painting with pureed foods, making funny faces out of differently shaped foods or playing in a sandpit full of rice and other foods (vegetables, whole apples, dried pasta, beans, oats).


5. Small changes to “safe foods”

Small changes to foods your child already likes is a small step in the right direction. The goal is to not change the taste of the food, however making it slightly different to the last time it was served. This small change might look like serving baked potatoes in different shapes and sizes, if baked potatoes are already an accepted food. Or otherwise, serving the baked potato with a very small portion of baked sweet potato.


6. Providing encouragement and praise, even when a food wasn’t eaten

Recognise the small wins that overcome sensory aversions. For example, if your child smells a new food, and decides not to eat it, that is okay! Provide recognition that they were willing to smell it. In a similar way, encourage your child to touch new foods, even if it is with a fork/spoon.


7. Model positive mealtime behaviors

During mealtimes, talk about food in a positive light. Describe what you like about each food, even if your child decides not to try it. A positive and calm mealtime environment has been proven to have significant positive outcomes on children’s behaviors towards food.

 


Sensory food aversions can be tricky and worrying.

If you are struggling to encourage your child to eat a wide variety of foods, you may benefit from further assistance. If you are concerned about your child’s diet, have any questions, or would like personalised information, please contact OSCAR Care Group for further support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian. For childcare centres, our Dietitians can assist with education sessions, menus and more. For more information, reach out to our team .




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