Feeding Therapy: What Is It and Would My Child Benefit?

To someone who has never experienced repulsion at the sight of a non-preferred food, difficulty tolerating certain textures, or an extremely limited food repertoire, eating might seem like an easy task: you sit down and you eat. What’s so hard about that? For someone who experiences feeding difficulties on a daily basis, however, it’s not so simple.

What is feeding therapy?
Many people are familiar with traditional therapies, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc. However, feeding therapy is a lesser known intervention that is becoming more widely available as feeding difficulties are more recognized in our society. There are a variety of different feeding therapy approaches across the nation based on your child’s individual needs. Here at PlayWorks, feeding therapy typically includes the following components:

  • Child driven, not volume driven: The goal of a therapy session is not necessarily for a child to sit and eat a full meal. The goal of a therapy session is for a child to interact with food in a way that is enjoyable and motivating. When the fear of trying a new food is removed, a child has the tools to become a successful feeder.
  • Family focused: Unlike other one-on-one therapies, feeding therapy is most successful when the whole family participates. This improves generalization of learned skills, as well as strengthens the social component of enjoying a meal.
  • Feeding should be FUN: Feeding should not be a traumatic experience! Many sessions will focus on simply interacting with non-preferred foods. When a child learns that new or non-preferred foods don’t have to be scary, he or she is more likely to take the steps to try (and actually enjoy!) new foods.

What will my child work on in feeding therapy?
Before deciding on goals for feeding therapy, a feeding therapist will evaluate your child’s feeding skills to determine the root of his or her feeding difficulties. Simply speaking, feeding difficulties typically fall into the following two categories:

  • Sensory difficulties: Children with sensory concerns related to feeding typically present with either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. Children who are hypersensitive can have mild to severe reactions to different types of foods. This is typically related to the item’s texture, color, consistency, etc. In this case, feeding therapy will work to increase a child’s comfort interacting with certain foods. For example, therapy may initially target a child tolerating a non-preferred food on his or her plate before moving to touching, smelling, and eventually eating the target food. If a child is hyposensitive to foods, he or she may prefer very spicy or sour foods and avoid foods with less texture or flavor. Additionally, he or she may overstuff his or her mouth or pocket food in his or her cheeks. In this case, a therapist may use varying techniques to increase oral sensation.
  • Oral Motor difficulties: Children with oral motor difficulties typically have difficulty chewing foods with a “tougher” consistency (e.g., meats, crunchy vegetables) and prefer softer and/or pureed foods. Additionally, a child with oral motor difficulties may have a hard time controlling the food in his or her mouth, leading to “messy” eating and, at times, coughing or choking on foods. A feeding therapist will likely implement oral motor exercises into feeding therapy to strengthen your child’s oral musculature.

There may also be feeding difficulties that are caused by reduced pharyngeal (i.e., the muscles in your throat that control swallowing) strength and coordination. In these types of feeding disorders, a child frequently coughs or chokes when eating or, more commonly, drinking. If your child frequently coughs when drinking liquids, he or she could be at risk for aspiration. It is important to have your child evaluated by a feeding therapist to determine the best utensils and strategies to allow him or her to safely tolerate an age-appropriate diet.

How do I know if my child would benefit from feeding therapy?
If you’re wondering when a child’s “picky” or “messy” eating becomes more than just a quirk and something that requires intervention, you’re not alone. While everyone has a food that he or she dislikes, feeding therapy is warranted when a child omits all or the majority of an entire food group or has a severely limited diet. Simply speaking, if your child’s eating habits impact your everyday life (i.e., making a separate meal for him/her to avoid a meltdown) and, most importantly, his or her nutrition, it may be time to consider a feeding therapy evaluation.

Questions or concerns?
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s feeding skills, please contact us at info@playworkschicago.com or 773-332-9439.

Sarah Lydon, MA, CCC-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist

Photo Credit: life is fantastic via unsplash.com

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