Parents often find figuring out how to feed their children one of the most stressful aspects of raising babies and young children. It is certainly not uncommon for parents to struggle with decisions around breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding. As children get older, parents often worry that their picky toddlers are subsisting on bread and pasta alone and will never eat a green vegetable. Frequently, as children develop and mature, and when parents stay calm at mealtimes and model their own healthy eating-habits, kids will grow into healthy, nourished people who eat a wide-range of nutritious foods.
For too many families, however, children who struggle with eating are more than just just “picky”: They may have an undiagnosed Pediatric Feeding Disorder. A child who meets the criteria for Pediatric Feeding Disorder cannot eat the types of food or the quantities of food that other kids their age can eat. They may have a medical issue that is interfering with their ability to eat. Children may have difficulties with choking, gagging, or swallowing while eating, may complain of pain, or may vomit following meals. Some children may have feeding-skills challenges. They may have difficulty processing the sensory aspects of food (so food may taste too strong, too bitter, too spicy, or feel too chunky or slimy for example). Other children may have motor coordination difficulties which may get in their way of being able to suck, swallow, bite and chew successfully. Some children feel anxious by the experience of eating. They may throw tantrums during mealtimes or refuse to eat unless certain conditions are met.
Caregivers understandably feel stressed and overwhelmed when trying to ensure their child stays healthy and they are not able to meet their child’s nutritional needs. Too often caregivers are told to use “tough love”- simply don’t accommodate the child and she will eat when she is hungry. For children with a Pediatric Feeding Disorder- that is absolutely untrue. These kids require specialized treatment and parents need to use individualized, positive behavioral strategies to support their children.
It is estimated that anywhere from 1 in 23 to 1 in 37 children in the US have a Pediatric Feeding Disorder. This is higher than other well-known conditions such as autism (1 in 54) or cerebral palsy (1 in 323).1 Despite the high frequency of this condition, there is not enough evidence-based treatment available nor enough therapists who feel comfortable treating food-related-issues appropriately.
To support children who are extremely selective eaters or who have a Pediatric Feeding Disorder, Arbor Psychology Group has a multidisciplinary team of specialists available to work with the entire family. Our occupational therapists work directly with children while our psychologists support parents/caregivers to learn how to carry over the strategies learned in the clinic into the home setting. During occupational therapy sessions, children engage in sensory play as they learn to accept the look, feel, smell, and taste of foods. Children learn about the science of food, the reasons for hunger and eating, and why nutrition matters all while exploring foods in a comfortable way and while cooking. Parents learn how to create calm, predictable structure and maintain a positive parent-child relationship while supporting their child’s ability to eat. Our team collaborates with pediatricians, dieticians, and other medical providers for a comprehensive, holistic approach. Our overall goal is to make feeding- and eating- a rewarding, joyful experience! It doesn’t need to be a struggle.