5 Tips for Sensory Eaters with Feeding Issues

What is a Sensory Eater? 

It’s very common for kids to be picky eaters. However, dealing with sensory eaters can be different. While being a sensory eater is often connected to being a picky eater, they are still separate things that should be approached differently. A sensory eater is someone who experiences sensory overload when eating specific foods. If a child has sensitivity to certain smells, textures, or flavors of food, they may have a strong reaction when presented with a food of non-prefered charistics. For example, if they are sensitive to strong smelling foods, they may gag if you try to feed them broccoli . Or they may have increased anxiety to touching a sticky food like mashed potatoes. Sensory overload may present in different ways, including gagging, choking, nausea, or even breaking out into a sweat. In most cases, a child will become upset when presented with foods they do not like.  Being a sensory eater is common in children with ASD because they often have difficulties with processing sensory input.. Working with a OT and SLP can help to figure out if your child is a picky eater, they may perform an oral motor assessment, as well as simulate mealtime to observe the child’s reaction to preferred foods compared with their reaction to non-preferred foods. As you can imagine, being a sensory eater can lead to many difficulties when it comes to feeding your children. 


Sensory Eaters vs. Picky Eaters 

The main difference between being a sensory eater and a picky eater is sensory overload. Picky eaters do not experience it, but sensory eaters do. Sensory eaters often struggle with sensitivities to foods, often to things like texture, smell, or flavor. They may have a reaction, such as gagging, when exposed to a food of textures, smells, or tastes they do not like. Sensory overload can cause pain and discomfort for a child who is a sensory eater, which isn’t the case with picky eaters. 


Sensory-Based Treatment

Sensory-based treatment for feeding focuses introducing new textures and flavors to gradually build a tolerance to them over time while also addressing the child’s other sensory needs that could be contributing to picky eating. Increasing exposure to non-preferred foods in a stress free environment is key.  Steps to acclimate them to non-preferred foods include: look, touch, smell, taste, chew, swallow. A child should be able to interact with a food without feeling forced or uncomfortable. Asking  the child how they are feeling when they are around various foods may be hard for them to verbalize but can help to increase  self-awareness and decrease anxiety over time. Remember to start with mangable expectations and celebrate each achievement  as the process can take time .

Top 5 Tips for Sensory Eaters 

Dealing with sensory eaters can be difficult. Here are some of our top tips: 
  • Do not pressure or reprimand your child. This is not easy for them, adding additional pressure and negativity around it can make it worse. On the contrary, you should validate their fears and sensitivities by letting them know it’s OK for them to have these feelings and reactions towards these foods 
  • Expose them to food without the pressure of making them eat it. This can help to desensitize them to their unpreferred foods. For example, do food art projects (such as macaroni crafts) or have them help you bake or cook something that isn’t for them to eat. 
  • Introduce foods incrementally. Start with just having the food in front of them, then have them smell it, then touch it, then taste it, then chew it, and finally, have them swallow it. Each step should be done slowly and even over the course of a few days to weeks, so that they are smelling it on day one but only actually eating it on day five or six. 
  • When eating out at a restaurant, do what you can to lower the amount of unpleasant sensory stimulation your child may experience. This includes bringing a scent kit if they are sensitive to smells, being selective about where your seats are in the restaurant (ie far from the kitchen or other places that may have stronger smells and louder sounds), or bringing other distractions, such as toys or a coloring book. Be sure to talk to the waiter or the kitchen staff about making your child’s food as plain and simple as possible.
  • Use a sampling plate that has their non-preferred foods on it. Keep this on the table near them so that they can try something from the plate when they are ready, but never pressure them to do so. Let them do it at their own pace. 


Speech & Occupational Therapy with Niagara Therapy, LLC 

If your child is dealing with a sensory eating issue, we are here to help. Our expert SLPs and OTs are trained to help children with sensory eating issues to help them increase their tolerance for non-preferred foods and improve their overall eating habits. Contact us today to learn more about our services. 

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