Feeding Your Child with Special Needs

Mealtimes for families without special needs children can be difficult, but for those with children with sensory processing difficulties it can really be an adventure.

While there isn't an easy way around these challenges, there are a few helpful hints that may keep a child's feeding issues from turning into significant problems.

Here are the five main components that affect a child’s ability to eat.

1. Sensory issues

The Challenge: Sensory-based feeding issues are the underlying factor to most feeding difficulties in children. The combination of food texture, temperature, and taste can be off-putting to kids, and cause frustration. Children usually tend to stick to foods they are familiar with, and soon these foods are the only ones that they will eat.

The Solution: To help create a broader diet, begin to slowly change the child’s favourite foods. For example, if they enjoy macaroni and cheese, and will only eat a certain shape pasta, toss in four or five pieces of different shaped macaroni (wheels, characters, etc.). Next time, add food colouring to the preferred shaped macaroni. The changes in texture, temperature, colour or taste should be slight but noticeable.

Another way to help children with feeding difficulties is to allow them to help choose foods at the supermarket and to let them help prepare the meal, exposing them to different textures, smells and tastes along the way. Don't forget small changes!

2. Oral-motor issues

The Challenge: Oral motor-based feeding problems can be caused by tone and strength issues. Children need to achieve good gross-motor coordination and movement in their body before they will achieve sufficient oral-motor skills.

However, oral-motor difficulties must be dealt with only after sensory issues have been attended to. In the end, good sensory input will result in good oral motor output.

The Solution: There are many oral-motor exercises that can help strengthen the jaw, tongue and lips, and parents with concerns should contact their G.P, occupational therapist or speech therapist for support.

3. Behaviour issues

The Challenge:  There are many different behaviours that can affect feeding: the child gets their parent/carers attention when they don’t eat, or eating is one of only a few things they have control of.

The Solution:  Positive reinforcement (“If you eat this piece of lettuce, then you’ll be able to play 10 minutes of computer games”). Encourage your child to play with food. We have a large selection of pretend foods in our resource library or your child to borrow – please contact your schools family service coordinator

4 Medical Issues

The Challenge: Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder and is a symptom found in a number of neurological disorders. Difficulties can range from a total inability to swallow, to coughing or choking. Some children may not be able to start the swallowing reflex. Food may get “stuck” in the throat or the child may drool because they cannot swallow their saliva. Weak throat muscles can not move all of the food towards the stomach. Food can fall or be pulled into the windpipe and liquids may be inhaled, which may result in a lung infection/pneumonia.

The Solution: There are different treatments for various types of dysphagia including muscle exercises to strengthen weak facial muscles or to improve coordination, using thickeners, but for some children, oral feeding/drinking may not be possible. They may need to have a feeding tube placed.

5. Family issues

The Challenge: Family dynamics are one of the hardest feeding difficulties to deal with. Parents and carers are the most important parts in implementing feeding plans. Many parents tend to feed their children foods that they themselves enjoy.

The Solution: It is important to give the child many options, including foods that the parents don’t regularly eat.

Most importantly, the child should feel as comfortable as possible when they are eating. Feeding is social, and feeling uncomfortable in a social situation can cause problems. Parents and families should be open when necessary. Go slow with the child and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Parents should try to avoid forcing children to eat. Present children with both preferred and non-preferred foods and let the child choose. When children feel like they have control over the situation, it’s easier for them to try new foods.