A food aversion is when a toddler or child refuses foods that are presented to him despite being developmentally appropriate. There are various factors that may play a role in the feeding experience, including sensory issues. Food aversion is common amongst children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism but may be seen with any diagnosis that affects development.
Our sensory system sends our brain information about what our bodies are experiencing through our senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, texture, etc. Our motor system refers to the muscles we move in response to sensory information.
Accurately feeling what’s going on in our mouth, throat, and stomach helps our brain tell those muscles what to do. Is that piece of chicken too hot? Our brain tells our mouth muscles to spit it out. Swallowed water too quickly? Our brain tells us to cough. Feeling full? Our brain tells us to stop eating (whether we listen to it or not is a different question!) When our sensory-motor system is imbalanced, feeding issues and swallowing disorders often arise.
Extreme picky eating may actually be a food aversion! “Picky eaters” typically have a decreased range of foods they will accept, but they are willing to eat more than 30 foods.
Problem feeders, or children with a food aversion, eat less than 20 different foods.
The best way to address food selectivity is by providing a positive mealtime experience. I know what you’re thinking- easier said than done. The secret is to start small and increase the challenge in baby steps. Begin by having at least one meal together as a family at the table. Modeling is such a powerful learning tool. Then advance to having whatever food the family is presented on the child’s plate, making sure to include a “safe” food at all meals. Be patient, continue modeling, and resist providing any verbal cues to try the novel food. Consistency is the key to results.
Statistics show that children do not “outgrow” true feeding problems. If you suspect your child has a food aversion, it is best to get an evaluation by a feeding expert. Eating is an inherently social experience. Therefore, food aversion is difficult for the whole family. The sooner your child can get treatment, the sooner the experience improves for the whole family.
Tiffany Brown is an occupational therapist at NAPA Center. Tiffany, previously a special education teacher, has dedicated her career to helping children reach their fullest potential. When not playing with kids, she enjoys traveling and searching for the perfect artisan ice cream.