For this week’s ‘5 Things’ post, I welcome Simone Emery from Play with Food. Simone is a children’s nutritionist and specialises in helping parents manage fussy eaters through feeding therapy. She is passionate about helping parents understand the basis for food aversions and is a wealth of knowledge and insight when it comes to sensory sensitivity and food. I’m excited to share her wisdom with you today on feeding kids and their sensory needs.
Sensory systems are integral to daily life and one of the most complex demands on the sensory system is eating. When it comes to everyday living goals, feeding is a big ticket goal. We do it EVERY DAY. Multiple times a day. Thanks for having me on your website today Kirsty to talk about the 5 things you need to know about feeding kids and their sensory needs.
I work clinically with children that are flagged as problem feeders and our client’s functional feeding goals are often centred around “sensory”. So, what sensory needs do you need to understand about feeding to help you feed your sensory kid?
Eating Uses All 8 Sensory Systems
At school, we were all taught about the 5 sensory systems – Sight, Smell, Touch, Sound and Taste. We often learn about foods in that order. A learn with the eyes. Then nose. Maybe a touch. Then we will hear sound it makes in our hand, or on our fork, or even the noise of the food on our teeth. And then of course we learn with our taste buds. Effectively with each food, we move up a series of steps. The steps to eating hierarchy (a model developed by Dr Kay Toomey) is a 32-step model of the journey your child takes with food; from being in the same room as a food, tentatively stepping up to interacting with the food by pushing it with a fork, taking a sneaky smell and eventually climbing the peak towards eating it. That is if their senses don’t go into overload en route pushing them towards fight or flight navigation options. Eating is not pass / fail. It is a learning journey. A journey for our senses.
The other 3 sensory systems relate to how our body works and how we work in our body. Vestibular sensations. Proprioceptive input. Interoceptive systems. These were new words to me when I stepped into a special needs feeding therapy team. How we relate to our bodies impacts on eating. These sensory systems impact our eating. We need our vestibular system to make sure we are safe in space. Imagine how hard it is, comparatively, to eat whilst perched on a bar stool without back support and our legs dangling. #amiright. We need our interoceptive system to tell us what is going on in our body, particularly notifying us of our tired or hunger cues. We need proprioceptive system (heavy work push-pull sensations) to build connections and get our body ready to take on the task of eating. Stand up. Do 3 star-jumps. Do you feel more connected? More ready?
We All Have Thresholds
One of my favourite analogies to explain sensory thresholds, is imagining that we have a “sensory cup”. On any given day we can tolerate a range of inputs to each sensory system and with each input we experience our cup starts to fill up. Sensory kids (and adults) may tolerate only small amounts of inputs before hitting their threshold. The sensory inputs become too great and you will recognise these sensory aversions as things like loud restaurant music (sounds), cooking garlic (smells), vestibular input (being on a swing) etc. Or, on the other hand, a child may be sensory seeking meaning that they just can’t get enough inputs to fill up what seems to be an unfillable cup.
When the cup fills up, we are literally brimming. So, reducing the content inside of the cup will create space. We need space to take on the sensory onslaught of foods. Foods that have a vast array of sensory properties. Work conditions (ie the mealtime environment) also pose sensory challenges. The thresholds are different for everyone. Even from day to day.
Changes In Sensory Inputs Make “New Foods”
When a food is changed, we may perceive the change as negligible BUT not everyone will perceive a change as “negligible”. For people very in tune with what a food needs “to be just right”, these small changes cause the food to become a new food. Thus, starting over at the bottom of the learning steps. Be patient with learning but keep pushing for the learning opportunities in ways that enhance your child’s positive associations with the foods.
The hardest foods to keep consistent are often the ones that children struggle with because it is effectively “work” every time. This includes mixed texture dishes (casseroles, curries, lasagne), whole meats (steak, chicken breast), vegetables and fruit. They have lots and lots of sensory properties AND they can change from time to time. For example, mangoes are stringy-in-my-teeth and lack flavour towards the end of the season as opposed to their full, ripe splendour in the mid-season. A Lebanese cucumber is wetter, seedier, sweeter and smaller than a green cucumber. Carrots aren’t just carrots when they can be sliced, diced, stir-fried, boiled, pureed, roasted, steamed, grated, peeled into ribbons, julienned, spiralised and “sticked”.
Learning Is Individual
We all sense our world in our way. Thus, we learn in our way.
To prepare for a learn about a new food, we need to be ready for learning. Sometimes, this means play with food away from mealtimes so that the learning isn’t necessarily associated with pressure to eat straight away. Sensory strategies may have to be applied during meals just to maintain arousal levels during a meal. For example, having a theraband wrapped around a chair leg for bouncing feet on to encourage self-regulation can work wonders for a physical stimulation seeker. Working on ways to “empty the sensory cup” from a big day before offering food is also a great strategy. For this some kids will like using a swing, crash mat, scented play dough, quiet time with puzzles or co-regulation with some big bear hugs. Or something different from day to day.
Each child will come to learning in a way that has to work for them. You are the person that knows your child the best. Offer them learning opportunities for your family food when you can. It doesn’t have to be a taste straight off the bat. It can sit in a bowl off to the side for a little while until they come around to learning about it – a visual engagement with it, a smell or even a lick. It won’t always take 15 exposures – It may take 100 – It may take 2.
Lean In. Embrace It.
You know your child unlike anybody else. Lean into the learning. Look at their sensory world. What arouses them? What do they seek out? What calms them? What are the sensory triggers that launch them into flight or fright mode? What coping mechanisms do they enact first? When you look at these pieces of the puzzle you can start to figure out and embrace strategies to help them have more learning experiences without instigating “flight or fight” mode coping mechanisms. It’s ok for them to opt-out after having a learn. Embrace the learning process and how it is gloriously different for every one of us.
When it comes to eating, sensory systems connect the dots. Eating is complex and yet we eat all of the time.
Simone Emery is a children’s nutritionist, writer, SOS Feeding program facilitator and mum of 2. Simone trained in the SOS (Sequential Oral Sensory) approach to feeding therapy in 2013 and has been working as a facilitator of the program within a therapy environment. Simone writes a blog, Play with Food, to help bring the elements of her feeding therapy experience to the home environment. Her blog has recipes and articles with fussy kids at the heart of everything she writes.
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Thanks so much for those insights Simone! Check out these posts if you’re interested in learning more about our own journey with sensory sensitivity and food:
This post is part of our new series “5 Things Special Needs Parents Should Know”. If you’d like to submit a guest post, or if you have a topic you’d like covered as part of this weekly series, send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org