Fact Files : Picky Eaters & Problem Feeders, Meal time challenges
Julie Albrecht, Accredited Practising Dietitian
Meal times can often be challenging for families, with a large number of parents indicating that they often feel, "stressed out" during their child’s feeding time, indicating that their child is a picky eater and difficult to feed (1).
Eating is the most difficult sensory task that children do and only the body’s third priority after breathing and postural stability. Eating is instinctive for the first month of life, where appetite drives intake for the first 4 – 6 weeks. From one to six months of age eating is reflexive and after this point it is a completely learned behaviour (2).
The sensory process associated with eating is complex and begins with sensory integration, which encompasses 6 major sensory components, including tolerance, interaction, smell, touch, taste and eating. Eating involves between 25 – 32 steps on the Steps to Eating Hierarchy, from tolerating a food to chewing and swallowing it (2).
As eating is a learned behaviour the development of this skill requires practice and experience. The developmental progression in learning to eat various textures requires both oral – motor functioning and sensory processing. A developmental food continuum should be as follows (2).
Children need social modelling to support their development of eating skills. Ideally this should encompass family meals where the adult provides modelling for good feeding behaviours, where the food not the child is the focus and the food is fun. Research by Ventura and Birch revealed that the higher the level of parental pressure to eat is associated with lower levels of child intake and weight and higher levels of rating of child “pickiness”. Being rewarded for eating food, that is getting dessert leads to less liking for that food. They also identified that restrictive feeding practices can increase the intake of and preferences for, palatable foods and increased eating in the absence of hunger (3).
Children also benefit from structured meal and snack times. This encompasses a designated place to eat, a routine to meal and snacks - notification of meal time; transition activity; sitting at a table; serving; eat; clean up; presenting foods in manageable bites and a base structure of 1 protein food, one starch and one fruit or vegetable. The meal time should be free of distraction, offering a variety of foods to minimise the development of food jags (term given to the eating pattern, when the child consumes the same food prepared the same way every day or at every meal), to allow the child to lay down neural pathways to healthy eating behaviours. The Length of meal time should be between 15 – 30 minutes. Allowing the child to graze at food, eating sooner than every 2 – 2.5 hours results in the chid consuming just enough food to take the edge off the hunger and then move off to do another task. The child then has little motivation to explore more difficult foods and may consume up to 50% fewer calories in a day, in comparison to eating to a schedule (2).
All of the above raises the question of what can families do to develop their child’s eating skills and food variety and overcome picky or problem feeding. In August 2009 I attended Picky Eaters vs Problem Feeder: The SOS Approach to Feeding Workshop conducted by Dr Kay Toomey and Dr Erin Ross in conjunction with the Children’s Nutrition Research Centre. The SOS Approach to Feeding encompasses a Sequential Oral Sensory Approach to assessing and developing children’s eating skills. I am now trained and authorised to conduct this program and have been implementing components of the program with children and their families. The practice is also considering developing a multidisciplinary clinic – focusing on children with picky eating or problem feeding. The SOS Approach provides a structured program which results in positive outcomes. If you would like more information, please contact the writer.
1. Lewinsohn, P., Denoma, J.Gau.,Joiner, T., Striegal-Moore, R., Bear P.,Lamoureux, B., (2005). Problem Eating and Feeding Behaviours of 36 moth old Children. International Journal of Eating Disorder,38(3), 208 - 219