They might not be misbehaving or choosing to be difficult!
Why is my child a picky eater?
It is a common myth that children who are picky eaters are just being difficult or misbehaving. Some children refuse to eat because they have underlying challenges with their oral motor skills, have difficulties with their sensory systems or have developed negative emotions around eating. These children learn to avoid challenging foods to protect themselves from choking or to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Speech-language pathologist and occupational therapists at Chatty Therapy can offer feeding therapy to help.
Here are some reasons why your child might be avoiding foods!
Reason 1: Picky Eating and Oral Motor Difficulties
Children who have difficulties with eating might have challenges with their oral motor skills.
Eating requires the coordination and control of many muscles in our mouth including our tongue, lips, jaw, cheeks, and soft palate. Oral motor skills is the ability for all of the mouth muscles to work together to bite, chew, swallow and breathe. When we eat, we need to be able to:
Open our mouth to take a bite.
Close our lips and cheeks to hold the food in our mouth.
Use the tip and body of the tongue to move the food from the front of our mouth onto our molars to chew.
Use the tip of the tongue to gather any bits of food in our cheek or on the other side of the mouth.
Use an efficient chewing motion to break apart a large bite into smaller pieces to swallow.
Use the body tongue to bring the food to the back of the mouth to be swallowed.
Eating is complicated. Eating involves multiple muscles and muscle movements. These movements have to be coordinated for us to efficiently break down large bites into small pieces that we can safely swallow. Challenging foods requires more muscle movement and effort compared to easier foods. For example, a cheap tough steak requires a lot more time and effort to chew compared to a tender filet mignon. As adults, we might choose to not eat the tough steak or spit out the piece of gristle because it is too difficult to chew and swallow.
Some children do not have the oral motor skills to be able to eat a healthy variety of foods. Foods that children will often avoid are vegetables, fruits and meats. These foods are more challenging to eat because they are typically harder and chewier. Vegetables, fruits, and meats require more effort, coordination, and skill to break apart in the mouth compared to softer carbohydrates (e.g., bread, pasta, pancakes) or processed proteins (e.g., chicken nuggets, hot dogs). Picky eaters may not have the oral motor skills, or mouth muscle movements and control to be able to eat these hard and chewy foods. Children may learn to say "no" to challenging foods because they cannot chew it and cannot safely swallow.
Reason 2: Picky Eating and Sensory Difficulties
Sensory overload can be another reason for picky eating. Eating involves all five of our senses. When we eat, we receive sensory information through our senses through tasting, touching, smelling, hearing and looking. For example, when we eat a strawberry, we:
Taste the flavour of the strawberry.
Feel the bumps when we hold the strawberry and place it on our tongue. Feel the juice and the small seeds when we bite into it.
Smell the fruity and sweet scents of the strawberry.
Hear the fluid-like sound when we bite a ripe strawberry or a crunchy sound if we bite a harder berry.
See the deep red colour, the tiny fur on the surface of the strawberry, the dark brown seeds, the deep green leaves or spots of green and yellow.
We get sensory information from every bite and from every food. With foods that we eat often, we become familiar with the sensory information and we know what to expect. With new foods, we get a lot more new sensory information because we are less familiar with the taste, texture, smell, sounds and look of the new food. Sometimes as adults, we can also feel uncomfortable with trying new foods, especially if we don't know what to expect.
In addition to the sensory information from the food itself, we also get sensory information from the environment around us while we eat. Other sensory information we get during a meal include elements like noise or music, smells of other foods, sensation of the chair, and lighting.
Some children can have difficulties taking in and responding to all the sensory information from food and environment. The large amount of sensory information from new foods can result in some children feeling extremely overwhelmed and anxious. The child may refuse to take a bite, or even refuse to sit a table with the new food nearby. Sometimes these children will only eat the same packaged foods or fast foods (e.g., Mcdonald's fries, Mcdonald's chicken nuggets, pizza bites). One reason is that these processed foods always look, taste, feel, smell and sound the same. The sensory information from the foods is predictable and always the same. Children can also experience sensory overload from external factors, such as a distracting and chaotic mealtime environment.
Reason 3: Picky Eating and Psychological Factors
Emotions, culture, routines and the expectations can also impact eating. Eating and mealtimes should be an enjoyable family experience. However, family meals can sometimes turn into a battle around food and threats about eating. Negative emotions such as stress, frustration and anxiety can develop for both the child and their parents when the child is not eating. Unfortunately, these negative emotions during a meal can impact a child's eating. When we feel stressed, our body naturally responds by decreasing appetite and decreasing hunger cues. Children can refuse to eat when they feel negative emotions because their appetite is gone and they don't feel hungry anymore. Sometimes parents can put unintentional pressure on their child when they try to encourage their child to eat. Some children refuse to eat to avoid the demands or because they are uncomfortable with the attention around their eating.
Many reasons why picky eaters are picky
Although we've listed the 3 major reasons for picky eating or feeding difficulties, eating is complex. Your child's picky eating can be a combination of these reasons or other difficulties including: organ systems, nutrition, development, and behaviour. Picky eating is not as simple as your child being difficult or misbehaving!
An iceberg can be used as one analogy for the complexity around feeding difficulties (SOS Approach to Feeding). Feeding difficulties and physical growth are the tip of the iceberg that can be seen. The portion of the iceberg submerged underwater represents the many additional factors that cause feeding difficulties.
Understanding the underlying reasons for your child's picky eating can help you know how to support them. Each child and family is unique and will need different approaches to address the feeding difficulties. A child who refuses to eat because they have oral motor difficulties will need different support than a child who has sensory difficulties.
Get help for picky eating
If you are concerned about your child's picky eating, please reach out to a feeding therapist. Feeding difficulties that are unsupported can potentially be dangerous to the health and growth of your child. A feeding therapist can help assess the reasons why your child may be a picky eater and provide therapy to address the causes of the feeding difficulties.
Mealtimes should be fun! Breakfasts, lunches and dinners are fantastic opportunities to make memories and develop positive relationships. Food is delicious and can be an enjoyable shared experience. Our culture and traditions are intertwined with our food. We are passionate about supporting families with eating because food is a foundational aspect of our identity and relationships.
Speech, Language, Feeding Therapy in Edmonton, Alberta
Chatty Therapy is based in Edmonton, AB. We have wonderful speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists who support children who are picky eaters or who have feeding difficulties. We also support children and adults with speech and language difficulties. Our feeding therapists can help you understand why your child has difficulty with eating and how to help them. Click here to learn more about our services or book a free 15-minute consultation.