Picky Eating or Sensory Sensitivity? Expert Pediatricians Answer FAQs!
Picky Eating or Sensory Sensitivity?
What's the Difference? Your FAQs Answered by Expert Pediatricians.
In this special guest blog post we welcome Developmental Behavioral Pediatricians, and founders of Coralis Health, Drs. Ayesha Cheema-Hasan and Angelica Robles. Coralis Health is an app-based platform designed to provide comprehensive healthcare services to children with mental, emotional, and behavioral concerns.
Drs. Cheema-Hasan and Robles are here to answer your most-asked questions about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), sensory sensitivity feeding issues, and most importantly, how to get support.
FAQ #1: What’s the difference between a picky eater and sensory sensitivity feeding issues?
Picky eating is a common and normal behavior in young children. Picky eating can be characterized by strong food preferences and an unwillingness to eat familiar foods or to try new foods. Although picky eating can start at any age, it’s most common to peak in children around the age of 3 years.
According to a recent study, the potential causes of picky eating can include “early feeding difficulties, late introduction of lumpy foods at weaning, pressure to eat, and early choosiness.” Persistent picky eating can have long term effects including poor dietary variety and possibly an inadequate intake of important nutrients including zinc, iron, and fiber, which are needed for proper growth and development and to prevent constipation.
The good news is with parental support and guidance, children can outgrow picky eating. However, for young kids with continued characteristics of picky eating, it’s important to keep an eye out for possible underlying medical factors including sensory sensitivity issues.
FAQ #2: I know I have a picky eater, so what can I do to prevent picky eating? Or how can I expose my child to a variety of foods?
You’re not alone. Many parents struggle with picky eaters, but there are a few tips and tricks to start implementing today to raise an adventurous eater. First, start introducing a variety of foods now! Research shows that early childhood is a critical period for the development of taste preferences and healthy dietary habits.
In fact, research shows that between 4-7 months of age, infants appear highly receptive to new flavors and textures and generally require fewer exposures than older children to increase acceptance. But, don’t worry if your baby is past this window! It’s never too late - start today!
Here are 10 Tips to Raise an Adventurous Eater:
- Be Patient. It can take 10-15+ different exposures/feedings for your child to accept a new vegetable, fruit, or flavor. This can be frustrating, but know that it’s just part of the process.
- Try Again (and again!). Repeated exposure to veggies in a positive environment can encourage them to continue enjoying a variety of foods.
- Avoid “Masking” Veggies. We want your baby to taste the veggie and learn to love the flavor. Try not to mask the veggie.
- Variety is Everything! Offer the rainbow for optimal nutrition and exposure to various foods and flavors.
- Promote Independent Eating. Have your little one use a fork or spoon and to start learning motor development skills during meal time. They will feel proud of their accomplishments (and so will you!).
- Introduce New Foods Every Week. Stuck in a rotation of the same foods? Try something new and different and involve the whole family!
- Make It Fun! Sit with your child and have a conversation about the food. Ask questions (what color is it?), explore the texture (Crunchy? Soft? Chewy?), and avoid any screens, music, or toys at the table.
- Don’t Get Upset. Your kid may not be hungry or interested in the food and it can be frustrating (we’ve all been there). Don’t react or pressure your child to finish their plate. If your child refuses their meal, let it be OK.
- Get Messy. The act of eating allows children to play and explore using all five of their senses (taste, touch, see, smell, hear) and encourages a healthy relationship with food!
- Enjoy Family Meals Together. Sit with your child during mealtime as much as possible at least once a day.
FAQ #3: I think my child has sensory sensitivities. What should I do first?
Sensory sensitivities can include sensitivities to color, smell, and texture of foods. Some kids may not even want to try certain foods, gag, spit, or first touch it with their hands and move on.
Other times, it may be difficult to pinpoint the challenge as it may not appear as clear or consistent. Some of these feeding issues can lead to very limited options and specific preferences that are restrictive. This can lead to some nutritional deficits and weight concerns.
Things to Note: How long have you noticed these behaviors? How long do they last?
- Talk to your pediatrician and ask for a referral for a consultation with an occupational therapist who specializes in feeding and discuss whether a referral to a pediatrician who specializes in developmental behavioral pediatrics is needed.
- Before your consult with a healthcare professional, keep a journal of the foods your child is avoiding, what he/she does when food is turned down, or anything else that you think would be helpful.
FAQ #4: What can I do to support my child with sensory sensitivities?
Some children may experience discomforts with feeding and the various food textures. It could be the texture of a slippery avocado or the rough edges of a zucchini that trigger an overstimulation response, but not to worry, there are a few strategies to start implementing today to expand your child’s diet for optimal health and nutrition.
Here are a few tips:
Repeated Exposures to Food
While most children need 10-15+ attempts to like a food, your child may need a few more exposures. Repeated exposures to new foods in a positive environment may help them like the new food. Take small steps when introducing new foods - start with a small amount on the plate. Help your child explore the new food by touching and smelling it.
Some children may be more inclined to try the new food by mixing the new food with a favorite one. Try adding a familiar texture, like a puree on top or on the side of your child’s favorite foods such as macaroni.
Most toddlers are exploring independence and control and it’s no different during meal times. Try offering your child a few choices within several categories. Have your child build their own plate by choosing from a list of approved foods. For example, if protein options are beans, lentils, chicken, or beef, have your child choose 1-2 proteins to add to their plate. Allow your child to choose 1-2 food items from each category (fruits, veggies, whole grains, proteins) to add to their plate.
Play With Your Food
This is the time to get messy! Playing with your food is one way to build comfort and familiarity with new foods.
Most children eat within the first 20-30 minutes of sitting down. Sitting for longer periods after that may be a challenge for a child with sensory sensitivities. Once mealtime is done, excuse your child from the table and have them resume other activities.
Try Different Temperatures and Textures
Your child may be hypersensitive to certain temperatures and/or textures, so it’s important to explore the new food using different preparation methods such as smooth or chunky and at various temperatures (room temperature, hot, cold). If a slippery avocado triggers a response, next time offer the fruit in a different texture such as a puree or in another multi-ingredient puree blend. Try this new preparation cold, hot, or even room temperature. Start with a small amount to mitigate waste. When your child has mastered the purees, your child may be ready to add more texture to their meal.
"We have found Square Baby meals to be an easy and convenient way to provide balanced nutrition with various textures (smooth and chunky), to help expand your child’s palate." -- Coralis Health
Read more about our Nutrition Promise here.
FAQ #5: I’m only seeing small changes and we’ve been working on introducing new foods for a while now. What can I do?
Building a palate takes hard work and patience! Navigating and resolving feeding issues is a journey - one that may look different for each family. While it may be frustrating, just know it’s part of the process, and remember that small, subtle, and consistent changes are creating long-term, lasting habits. Slow and steady wins the race!
If you need more support, we are here for you.
FAQ #6: What do I do if occupational therapy and these strategies aren’t working?
If you are having continued challenges, first discuss this with your child’s primary care provider. From there, you may consider connecting with a specialist to assess your child’s overall development and behavior. Some specialists include child psychologists and Developmental Behavioral Pediatricians. You can contact the Developmental Behavioral Pediatricians at Coralis Health and schedule an appointment. The healthcare professionals at Coralis Health will work with you and your child on their individual healthcare needs.
Coralis Health, LLC is a platform to connect neurodivergent and disabled children, adults, and caregivers with highly specialized healthcare providers, therapies, and services. Our care spans all ages, starting from the initial concerns and diagnosis, all the way through adulthood. Our goal is to create a world where all people can realize their full potential! To learn more, please visit www.coralishealth.us.
To learn more about Square Baby, please visit www.squarebaby.com.
~Katie & Kendall, Chief Mamas, Cofounders