Are sensory sensitivities causing picky eating or making it worse?
Sensory sensitivities are thought to affect a significant percentage of children. They also go hand in hand with other childhood challenges like ASD and ADHD.
If our child has sensory processing challenges it can make eating more difficult and often unpleasant. Eating is a huge sensory experience. It’s the sight, the smell, the taste, the feel and even the sound. Think of how a corn chip feels in the fingers, how it smells, the sound and the feeling when you crunch on it and then the distinctive taste as you eat it.
The way we interpret sensations from our environment is unique to us. It is also something that we manage differently over time. Young children can struggle to process the volume of information coming into their system and find certain things overwhelming.
Sensory sensitivities around food
The sensory discomfort can often be seen in relation to food and it can make eating uncomfortable and unpleasant. Although the discomfort stems from the sensory input it often leads to other challenges that make eating more difficult too:
i) Food producing an uncomfortable feeling can lead to fears around eating or eating specific types of food.
ii) It can also build up a general dread or anxiety around meals in general.
iii) Even when a child better adapts to sensory input as they mature, they have an emotional reaction to the foods, a ‘hangover’ from when those foods were unpleasant.
The sensory spectrum
Although it’s common for children to find sensory inputs overwhelming, the opposite end of the sensory spectrum is where there is under stimulation of the system. A child may not like soft textures, for example, as they may find it difficult to feel them in the mouth. Or, they may want to cram foods into the mouth so there is a noticeable feeling.
Sensory seekers are likely to want to jump and swing and bang. Whereas at the opposite end of the spectrum there may be avoidance of loud noises or mess. Just to make things really exciting though, you can have a child who is both in different areas!
How to spot sensory challenges
There are many ways that discomfort may show up. Some of these are listed below:
a) A dislike of loud noises or bright lights
b) Discomfort having dirty hands or faces
c) Not wanting to be touched or hugged
d) Touching everything and wanting bear hugs
e) Discomfort with labels in clothes, the fit of socks or certain materials
f) Poor coordination
There are also some signs that are specific to food:
i) Gagging at the sight, smell, touch or taste of a food (this is before it goes in the mouth, not when trying to eat)
ii) Avoiding certain textures
iii) Eating only specific textures
iv) Overstuffing or holding food in the mouth
It is also helpful to think back to when your child was a baby. Did they put things into their mouths, or did they seem to skip this? Or, did they chew everything, even when a toddler?
What can we do?
Although having a child with sensory sensitivities can make eating much more of a challenge, it does not mean they are unable to learn to eat well and widely.
Remember, as we mature many of the sensory challenges become less overwhelming and children learn to interpret information in new ways.
There are also specific ways we can support our child to be able to eat more comfortably and more widely:
1. Empathise. Appreciating that this can be something our child finds really challenging and validating that is important.
Conversely, it’s also vital that we don’t then help them to avoid specific tastes, textures, smells etc. Studies have shown that not coming into contact with stimuli actually makes us more sensitive. Having a child that finds a certain texture uncomfortable, for example, so ensuring they don’t come into contact with it, over time can exacerbate rather than solve the problem.
2. Desensitise them to touch. The great news is, that when we desensitize certain parts of the body, it helps with other areas. For example, if we become less uncomfortable with touching something with our hands, it also helps with the feeling in our mouth.
There are specific ways we can support a child to become less sensitive via props like sensory bins. Having tubs filled with uncooked rice or sand to play in, for example. What is appropriate will depend on what the specific sensory needs are.
A vibrating toothbrush can be a great way to desensitize the mouth. Brushing not just the teeth but also the sides and the top of the tongue and the insides of the cheek as well.
3. Building a gradual comfort level with all aspects of a food. This is often best done away from the table and can be done via shopping, gardening, and cooking, for example. Messy play may also be an option. Everything from bubbles to slime to pudding pictures!
Starting gently and taking things in really small steps enables our child to gradually build up a tolerance to something that initially may seem overwhelming.
We may also need to scaffold those steps forwards to begin with to enable them to be able to manage things. For example, if touching a food seems overwhelmingly difficult, perhaps to start with instead of using hands we can use a fork.
It’s also where thinking of ways that we can make things easier for our child can pay off. For example, if soft foods are a no, can we alternate between crunchy and a tiny bite of soft so that the main texture that is experienced is the favoured one? Or can we add some soft to the crunchy?
4. Role modelling. Our children are always learning from us and watching to see how we behave around food. Showing them pleasure in touching and handling foods, over time gives them the confidence that those foods are okay.
Although sensory sensitivities can make eating more challenging, we can also do many things to support our child to manage the sensations more comfortably and the sooner we start, the easier it becomes.
If you are recognizing your child in some of this, it may be worth getting in touch for additional support.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Judith is also mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/