When talking about food-related sensory problems, we need to understand what is sensory processing... Sensory Processing is our capacity to perceive smells, tastes, noises, touches, sights, and activities in our surroundings. While each person processes this information differently, our senses serve as our navigation system in this world, allowing us to interact and interpret it properly!
We are bombarded with sensory feedback during the day, and feeding, as many of us do 5 to 6 times a day, is a massive sensory activity that most of us take for granted.
We as adults are used to processing different sensory stimuli - from textures, tastes, and smells, we're used to it. However many of our babies starting solids have not. Mealtimes in the first years of childhood are all about absorbing the sensory feedback from different foods.
When babies exhibit picky eating, especially those with food aversions/extreme picky eating, the touch, taste, or scent of food is always perceived in their brain as unpleasant. And by unpleasant, I mean it may almost trigger a fight or flight response in babies...
Our sensory processes are our most instinctual and intuitive means of interacting with the world, so it makes sense. Consider something that makes you cringe: nails on a chalkboard or touching a snail. When your child touches an orange, he or she will feel the same way you do. Dramatic, may be, but it's the reality which our babies live through and we must understand and support!
So how does this all relate to picky eating? Well picky eating can be caused by children who do not feel soft textures in their mouth well (as if the feeling is dulled) and therefore ignore them. These children, in particular, will often choose crunchy snacks, seem to spit out soft foods, or over-stuff their mouths in an attempt to “feel” the meal.
Sensory Food Aversion vs Disorder? Does my child have it?
Before we start we want to mention “sensory eating disorder” is not considered a true diagnosis in the medical community & neither is sensory food aversion. However, both terms can be used when the child consumes only a small number of foods when they are bothered by how foods smell, taste, sound, or even appear. Remember that this is due to how their brain interprets the sensations they get from food, which contributes to the point.
To further narrow down why the child's picky eating is due to sensory issues, consider which types of children are more affected by sensory processing problems than others. However, experiencing auditory processing problems, in general, DOES NOT MEAN that your child is suffering from either of these diagnoses.
Food Sensory Issues: What to Look for in Babies refusing food
Sensory problems with food may be one of the underlying reasons your child is picky with what they consume. You'll see some polar opposites in the list below, which represent both ends of the sensory processing continuum.
Gagging when starting new foods:
Gagging when feeding is a different cause and has to do with eating mechanics. Gagging may also be an acquired behavior that stems from a reaction to sensory stimuli or difficulties chewing or swallowing food at some stage in the past.
Preferences in Mouth Feel Textures:
The preference is usually for crunchy foods, but soft foods are also favoured. This preference can even extend too highly specific requests for specific food brands, colours, and flavours.
Avoids or dislikes getting their hands dirty, and I'm not just talking about during meals. You'll see your child being uneasy while doing crafts or playing in dirt/sand, for example.
Lack of Teething Tendencies
As an infant or toddler, they never went through an oral period in which they mouthed and chewed on toys and other items.
Pro Tips for Treating a Sensory Food Aversion!
Having said that, when used regularly for a span of at least 4-6 weeks, these few tools can be very useful because they help to desensitize the sensory system. Return to these tactics as required.
- Using a Long, sensory stimulating Teethers - Teethers like Lil' Foodie Chews Teether Tubes are food inspired teethers that help children map their mouths as they're long enough to reach the sides and back of children's mouths. But also their sensory stimulating texture are OT & Feeding specialist backed to promote oral desensitization! Link is here - use the code "SENSO20" to get 20% off!
- Encourage your child to invite you to assist him or her in brushing his or her teeth, and brush the sides of the tongue, top of the tongue, and within the cheeks as well.
- Build on textures that your child enjoys. Consider making minor improvements to foods they already like, such as modifying the color, taste, or textures!
- Encourage them to communicate in some way with the food. Contrary to conservative schools of thought, playing with your food can be a great way to break feeding barriers with sensory-sensitive teething babies.
- Cooking together creates a no-pressure environment in which children can try new foods. In the enjoyable and comfortable atmosphere of the moment, children feel adventurous enough to try something different. Again, the key is to break down some of that aversion through food discovery.
- If your child is susceptible to overeating or finding texture, you can mix crunchy and smooth bites of food. When the stuffing or spat out begins, you should either give the cheeks a hard yet soft pinch or briskly stroke from the ears to the mouth a few times.