Helpful Hints

Sensory Issues in Feeding Small Children

This article was written by Teri Olbrot, OTRL, an occupational therapist with decades of experience in feeding young children and is currently in private practice.

 

Sensory Issues in Feeding Small Children

Introduction:

Picture a baby, teetering on his little bottom as he finds his balance, reaching out with tiny fingers for his first bites of food.  A whole new world of sensory experiences is at his fingertips!  A baby’s early feeding experiences should bring rich sensory discoveries of taste, textures and smells.  Exploring new foods and learning to eat should be happy, exciting, and fun for a child.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.  As an occupational therapist, I frequently work with young children and their families regarding eating and feeding concerns.  Some of these children are ill and need different strategies and assistance to receive their nutrition.  Other children have the ability to eat, but self-limit their diet in unhealthy ways, putting their growth and development at risk.  While many children might be “picky eaters” at different times in their lives, most will outgrow their pickiness, if it isn’t reinforced.  This article is about another group of children, those who don’t respond to the typical interventions and have developed intense and often phobic responses to food.  Their poor relationship with food causes distress to themselves and their families, who are desperate to feed them, and presents a risk to normal growth and development.  Sensory Integration Theory offers an explanation for these difficulties and possible solutions.  

 What is Sensory Integration Theory?

Sensory Integration Theory was first described by Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and neuroscientist, who defined it this way:  “The neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment.”  This theory offers one way to understand a child’s difficulty with food.

Eating is a profound sensory experience, intimately involving the senses of touch, smell, taste, sound and sight.  Why we prefer one food over another is an enigma, difficult to explain.  The mouth feel of smooth pudding is very pleasant for some, but noxious to another.  A crunchy or chewy texture will please some and cause others to gag.  

Eating and feeding skills also involve the proprioceptive senses (muscle memory and motor planning) and vestibular senses (knowing where our body is in space).  We use these skills to grade how hard to squeeze a sandwich as we bring it to our mouth;  to determine how to grasp the handle on our coffee cup and take a sip while reading the newspaper; and how to navigate a spoonful of soup as it travels through space on its way to our lips.  

Another sensory skill is self regulation, which plays a big part in eating skills and mealtimes.  Self regulation involves impulse control, delayed gratification, following directions, and cooperating with others.

Our environment and meal time experiences also affect our sensory system.  Memories of eating and being fed with love, watching others eat with pleasure and joy, and experiencing new foods without pressure or force, influences our sensory system in a very positive way.  When eating is painful or difficult due to illness, when food tastes bad to us or if we simply aren’t hungry but must eat, our sensory reactions are impacted in a negative way.   

How negative eating patterns are reinforced:

Parents are often mystified and justifiably concerned when their child won’t eat and will try anything to get them to “just take a bite.”  Extended family and friends frequently weigh in on the matter, more often than not, adding more pressure than viable solutions.  Some of the more common strategies used, often learned by parents during their own childhood, include making the child stay at the table until the food is eaten, using a preferred food as a reward, or comparing the non-eater to someone else who eats “better.”  Even positive reinforcers, like stickers, high fives, verbal praise, are of limited or no value in building a healthy relationship with food.  There is no point in asking a child to “please eat it for me.”  

Once a pattern of refusal is in place, parents may beg, plead, threaten, bribe or punish their child out of desperation and helplessness.  They may follow their child around with food, or present an array of possibilities at mealtime, in the futile hope that maybe this time, their strategy will work.  Often, they rely on “junk” food to get calories in, or settle for a diet of highly flavored processed food such as chicken nuggets, sweetened cereal, or flavored yogurt.

 Is it a sensory problem?  Is it a behavior problem?

Paradoxically, the harder parents, caregivers, and even therapists try, the more imbedded the child’s eating problems may become.  Like the fable of the Wind and the Sun, we need to find a way to “warm up” the child, gaining his trust and cooperation, so that he or she feels safe enough to put his defenses down.  Force may win a battle or two, but never leads to a healthy relationship with food or happy family meals. 

It can be difficult to tease out where the sensory issues end and the behavior issues kick in, but as a child adapts his behavior in response to his environment, sensory issues can easily become problem behaviors.  The sensitive gag reflex may resolve, but the protests to and refusals of the foods that triggered it will remain.  

Tools for Therapists and Parents:

While a typical child will respond like a charm to modifying the mealtime environment, it is rarely that simple for a child with deeply imbedded sensory issues.  Mealtime modifications, however, are a crucial first step in the treatment plan.    

Here are some typical recommendations for structuring mealtime:  

    

  • Plan meals and snacks at regular intervals, i.e., every three hours.  Serve only water between these times.
  • Limit mealtimes to about 20-30 minutes.
  • Facilitate self feeding whenever possible by offering age appropriate foods cut into sticks or chunks that the child can manage on their own.
  • Limit verbal prompts.  “Take a bite,” “just try it,” “you liked this yesterday,” are not helpful.  This is very challenging for desperate parents and therapists, who feel they must do SOMETHING!  Pretend you don’t care.  Enjoy your own meal, while pleasantly smiling and making conversation.  Fake it!   T. Berry Brazelton points out in his book, Touchpoints, that if a parent or therapist permit a power struggle at mealtime, the parent/therapist will always lose.  It is much more empowering for a small child to watch us squirm than follow their appetite
  • Refer to Louise Satter’s Division of Responsibility:  Parents provide structure, support, and opportunities for eating; children choose how much and whether to eat.  

 Once a functional mealtime environment is established, the treatment plan continues.  An occupational therapist’s job is to analyze an activity (eating and feeding), determine where the activity has broken down, (food is thrown on the floor) then modify or change the activity in a functional way to meet a goal.  For instance, the first goal for the child who throws food on the floor is that he allows the food to stay on the plate.   The process can be summarized as follows:

 1.         Determine the “just right challenge” for the family and the child.  Break things down to what is doable today.  

2.         Implement gentle persistence.

3.         Be cognizant of what you can control and what you cannot.  The family and therapist control the treatment strategies; the child controls the pace of progress.

4.         Remember the goal:  Good growth and development; a happy relationship with food.  

5.         Keep your expectations modest because you might not get what you want.  Individual tastes and preferences are very personal.  Accepting someone just as they are, especially a child, is a huge gift. 

 With time and patience, teamwork, and a carefully designed treatment plan, a well nourished child and peaceful mealtimes are entirely possible.  

 

 

Helpful Suggestions: For Parents of Elementary Students

This article was written by Cortney Modelewski, MA, LPC professional counselor at Cognitive Behavior Solutions and an active member of SMEDA.

For Parents of Elementary Students:  Working to Create a Positive Relationship with Food

My daughter decided she didn't like jelly after coming home from a sleepover. Her friend declared hatred of all fruit-flavored spreads, and my daughter soon followed suit and has not eaten jelly, jam, preserves, or marmalade within the last three years.
    
She is eight, and she continues to struggle with the conflicts between her wariness of food, her environment, and her hunger. These challenges are typical of elementary age children, especially younger ones.  Dovey et al (2008) provided a review of the research on children's eating behaviors. They outline the difference between what people call “picky eating,” which is having inadequate variation in diet, and “neophobia,” which is refusal or reluctance to try new foods. Environmental (i.e. home, school, and culture) and genetic factors play roles in how and why children develop these eating behaviors.

While you can't change your child's genetics, you can make changes to their environment. Here are a few tips from my household, which consists of a couple of vegetarians and a meat-and-potatoes guy, who collectively have food neophobia, sensory processing issues, food intolerance, and a food allergy.

1.    Caretakers are role models. I am not a big fan of breakfast. My child has started to say she doesn't like breakfast. I decided to suck it up and eat some toast in the morning because I want my child to eat breakfast before going to school.
2.    Enlist authorities. Our pediatrician gave my child the same speech I had given, but my child responded to the pediatrician because she's a doctor. She also started eating red peppers after a dietitian came to her school and talked about how vegetables are awesome.
3.    Make food fun! Kids like to make their own creations, and also like it when they have surprises at mealtime.
4.    Negotiate packed lunch menus. Say, “Would you like baby carrots or cucumbers in your lunch?” If my daughter has a better idea, such as broccoli, I am all for it.
5.    Try to have everyone in the family eat the same things. My husband may throw some meat on his plate of spaghetti, but we're all still eating spaghetti. This ties into the first tip. Also, your family does not pay you to be a short order cook, so don't do it. It's more frustrating and reinforces problematic beliefs and behaviors your child may have.
6.    It's okay to be frustrated when your child doesn't eat, but try not to fight. I have had many dinner wars in my time as a parent, especially after a cooked meal has followed a twelve-hour workday. Not worth it. Ask your child to taste the food – which doesn't need to include chewing and swallowing – and then drop it for the night.
7.    Unless you have a specific diet due to religious beliefs, there is no reason to call food good or bad, and if a person in your family has a medical problem that restricts certain foods, giving the restricted menu to your entire family every so often may help the child and others in the family understand the need for meals.

If you are concerned about your child's eating habits, do not be afraid to make an appointment with their primary-care provider to discuss these concerns.  UWHealth (2014) notes some red flags including weight loss, choking on food, frequent complaints about stomach pain, vomiting or diarrhea after eating, and moodiness. Your child may have a treatable eating disorder, anxiety disorder, or medical condition.

References and Resources

Terence M. Dovey, Paul A. Staples, E. Leigh Gibson, Jason C.G. Halford, Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: A review, Appetite, Volume 50, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 181-193, ISSN 0195-6663, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2007.09.009.

University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority [UWHealth] (2014). Health facts for you.  https://www.uwhealth.org/healthfacts/parenting/518.pdf

We Can! Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/index.htm

Helpful Suggestions: Going Back to School for Middle and High School Students

This article was written by Cathy Cook, LLPC, TLLP, RD Nutritional Therapist at Life Coach Psychology and an active member of SMEDA.

Going Back to School for Middle and High School Students

     The start of middle and high school brings excitement to see old friends, meet new friends, and the possibility to learn new material and succeed. The new school year can also bring anxiety ridden thoughts of “will I fit in?”, “can I succeed in school?” and “where will I sit for lunch and with who?” Going back to school can be an exciting, hopeful time but can also be a dreadful, anxious time, especially with an eating disorder.

      Before getting into tips with the transition, it’s important to understand an aspect of adolescence. All adolescents experience to some degree aspects of egocentrism which was first discussed by psychologist David Elkind. He described two related beliefs of natural self-centered behavior, which can be seen in the late tween and teen years:   the “imaginary audience” which includes a belief that peers are watching and critiquing their every move, and the “personal fable,” a belief that they are somehow special, unique and invincible. Why am I bringing this into a discussion of eating disorders in middle and high school? Because this is the target age of those thoughts and behaviors that can exacerbate eating disorder behaviors, and keeping them in mind may provide an opportunity for discussion and understanding.  

      Knowing your child, and considering normal adolescence, here are some thoughts to help ease the transition:

1)    Start the new school routine a few days or week ahead including sleep patterns and meal times.  

2)    Discuss expectations of meals including morning breakfast, snacks and lunch, monitoring to ensure a balanced meal is prepared including a protein source, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables.

3)    Talk about possible triggers exploring the obvious and unseen, considering friends and fitting in, bullying, boyfriends and girlfriends, drive to succeed and possibilities of failure.

4)    Consider after-school activities which your child would enjoy, as this is a time when kids who are home before their parents may binge or engage in eating disorder behaviors.

5)    If there is an active eating disorder, consider meeting with the school counselor or nurse to discuss monitoring mealtime intake, snacks and activity level during the day. It may be necessary to arrange meals to be eaten with the counselor, however be aware that friends may question this and want to be included.

6)    With an active eating disorder or recovery, be firm with ground rules and willing to implement if needed. If a meal is skipped or weight is not being maintained, have an alternate plan in place such as eating with your child at school or being sidelined from sports. Being clear and communicating ground rules is a must.

     Good communication, a plan, and knowing where to go for help if needed can help ease the transition back to school. Remember, being confident about your child’s recovery can increase both their confidence in their own recovery and in school.

 

Sources:
Lock, J., & Le Grange, D. (2015). Help your teenager beat an eating disorder (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

What is Adolescent Egocentrism. (2017). https://www.verywell.com/
     definition-of-adolescent-egocentrism-3287985

Helpful Suggestions: Eating Disorder Symptoms and the Transition to College

This article was written by Victoria Cane, Ph.D, LP, a member of SMEDA.  She is a licensed psychologist with a focus on treatment of eating disorders and emotion-regulation disorders for over 10 years.

Eating Disorder Symptoms and the Transition to College.


As an eating disorder treatment provider working with clients who are transitioning to college, my first thoughts aren't always welcome ones. If someone is struggling with symptoms like inability to sustain weight or general management of nutrition, or has not achieved abstinence from behaviors like bingeing/purging, it is hard to give support to taking on something as stressful as leaving home to start college life. And it is stressful. I recall my first semester at NYU and I'm really proud I made it through. There were times I wasn't sure I was going to. There was just so MUCH to take in and acclimate to. I had no idea I would become a psychologist back then (my major was drama) but I do recall the girl I met during that first week and being truly baffled that she would consider broccoli and a gallon of diet coke to be dinner when there was so much else to choose from at the cafeteria.

Parents/loved ones of those who have struggled with an eating disorder often find themselves paralyzed at the thought of not supporting the move to college. After all, it represents growth, progress, a natural next step in life development. My point as a provider, however, is that some of those growth markers, both literal and figurative, need to be in place first. This is where full participation in recovery-oriented treatment is so important. Although one study indicates that the transition doesn't necessarily trigger the onset of symptoms (the study found that most eating disorder symptoms were present before college), it also found that body image disturbance may worsen and symptoms were certainly not helped (Vohs, 2001).  One on-line resource very clearly calls for symptom absence before transitioning.

Assuming that the student has indeed engaged in their own recovery and symptoms are not acute at the time of transition, I begin to talk about transition management, including: finding mental health and medical resources beforehand and signing appropriate releases, identifying ways of staying accountable including weight checks if applicable, identifying other potential supports like student groups, and have a solid plan for what we call "cope-ahead" strategies; that is, rehearsing stress management skills before they are needed. We may also make a plan to check in and/or return to regular contacts when the student is on break.

In the type of therapy I rely on most often in the treatment of eating disorders, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), the provider hopes and "shoots" for the desired outcome at all times, while simultaneously being prepared for and helping the client prepare for set-backs. We do not "expect" set-backs, but should they occur, we make every attempt to correct them as quickly as possible. When a client leaves for college I wish them well and cheer for them. I think of them as fall gets colder, and I hope they are okay. Should they need to take a break to focus on health, and they seek my help, my immediate questions return to "what are the goals?" and "what is needed for recovery?"

 

On-line resource: http://www.mirror-mirror.org/transitioning-to-college.htm

Other resources:

Anonymous. (2012). Life Transitions May Trigger Eating Disorders. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved September 18th 2013 from: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2012/04/25/life-transitions-may-trigger-eating-disorders

Strober, M., & Johnson, C. (2012). The Need for Complex Ideas in Anorexia Nervosa: Why Biology, Environment, and Psyche All Matter, Why Therapists Make Mistakes, and Why Clinical Benchmarks Are Needed for Managing Weight Correction. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45, 155-178.

Vohs, K.D., Heatherton, T.F. and Herrin, M. (2001), Disordered eating and the transition to college:  A prospective study. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 29:  280-288. doi:  10.1002/eat.1019

 

 

 

 

Helpful Suggestions: Road Trip Tips

     This article was written by Gary Snapper, LPC, LLP, an active SMEDA Board member.  He is a licensed Professional Counselor and a Limited License Psychologist who founded Cognitive Behavior Solutions in Kalamazoo. He specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders.

 

Road Trip Tips


     The end of summer is the time for road trips. Whether we are visiting family on the other side of the state, traveling to the beach, forest, or mountains, or simply packing up and going somewhere new, we need to eat during the trip.

     Eating during road trips brings its own set of challenges. Boredom can lead to eating more than we typically do. Apparent lack of healthy options can lead to eating more “junk” food. Escaping our day-to-day routine when leaving home can trigger additional escape urges, including escaping our healthy eating routines.

     A handful of simple strategies can help us cope with these and other food -related challenges that we face during summer road tripping:

  1. Packing some portable healthy foods and snacks can help us stick to the routines that we have worked hard to adopt at home. Some examples are trail mix, bagged vegetables, and hummus.
  2. Planning occasional stops at grocery stores can allow us to restock those healthy items during our travels.
  3. Eating frequently and in smaller amounts can address boredom, reduces the risk of binges, and helps ensure that you use up the food that you bring on the trip.
  4. Limit or avoid substances that are more likely to make us feel bad such as alcohol, deep fried foods, and refined carbohydrates.
  5. Choose water as your primary source of fluid during the trip. Many drinks on the market today provide little nutrient value and are overflowing with sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or synthetic sweeteners, none of which our bodies are designed to process effectively. These additives may diminish our sense of well-being.
  6. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey along the way. Prioritize physical-activity breaks several times per day while on the road. Packing Frisbees, soccer balls, and/or walking shoes help you to engage in light activities at rest stops or parks along the way.  Activity helps our bowels function, increases our metabolism, and increases absorption of the nutrients that food offers us.
  7. When you choose to sample local fare, make it worthwhile. Mindfully focus on the value of the foods chosen for flavor or novelty, and try to avoid food choice just due to convenience.
  8. Don’t be so rigorous in your food choices that you forget to have fun on the trip.  Be kind to yourself if you do opt for some unhealthier items while on the road.  Remind yourself that perfection is not the goal, but mindful eating is.