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Is Your Child a Picky Eater or Is it a Sensory Problem? How to Tell the Difference

It’s dinner time and you are trying yet again to get your child to eat something off their plate. You finally get a little bite of food in their mouth only for them to spit it back out again. How did they become such a picky eater?

Actually, they might not be a picky eater. What might look like picky eating could be your child experiencing sensory aversions to their food. A sensory aversion is when a child has difficulty accepting various textures, tastes, smells, or even colors of foods. A sensory based feeding problem is often mistaken for picky eating because they can cause a child to avoid eating certain foods, become fussy during meals, and refuse to try new foods. So how can you tell the difference?

A sensory aversion is when a child has difficulty accepting various textures, tastes, smells, or even colors of foods.

What is a Sensory Based Feeding Problem?

When a child has a sensory based feeding problem, they have difficulty accepting foods or drinks because of their texture, appearance, smell, or taste. Sensory based feeding difficulties can be caused by a number of factors, including oral motor challenges, transitioning to oral intake from tube feeding, or can be associated with neurodivergent development, such as autism spectrum disorder.

While children who are picky eaters may not eat everything on their plate, they are still able to get adequate nutrition throughout the week when you look at what they have eaten as a whole. Children with sensory based feeding problems however, face more challenges in eating a balanced diet and their food aversions impact their health and well being.

What Challenges Can a Sensory Based Feeding Problem Cause?

Children with sensory based feeding problems may experience any or all of the following difficulties that impact their daily lives:

  • Avoid and refuse certain foods

  • Stick to eating only a few preferred foods and have difficulty trying new foods

  • Become fussy during meal times

  • Gag or vomit during meals

  • Poor weight gain

  • Failure to thrive

  • Mealtimes are stressful for the child and family

How Can Feeding Therapy Help?

If you are concerned about your child’s eating difficulties, we recommend speaking to your child’s pediatrician and scheduling a feeding assessment. An evaluation can help determine if your child’s difficulties are more than just a picky eater phase. Treatment for sensory based feeding difficulties help children and their families with:

  • Increasing the amount of food the child accepts

  • Tolerating new food textures, colors, tastes, and smells

  • Identifying any potential underlying reasons for feeding difficulties

  • Decrease stress surrounding mealtimes

  • Provide training and tips for parents and caregivers

  • Promote weight gain and growth

  • Develop goals together based on each child and family’s needs

If you think your child may have sensory based feeding difficulties and you think they may benefit from seeing one of our speech-language pathologists, please feel free to contact us.

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