‘I don’t want that!’
‘But why can’t I have nuggets!?!’
Most mums and dads are familiar with these objections (and many more!) at the dinner table. Usually accompanied by a frowny face and crossed arms!
Kids who refuse foods are often referred to as ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’ eaters. Picky eating can manifest in many ways. Your 3-year-old might only eat crunchy foods. Or maybe your 6-year-old steadfastly refuses anything green. Maybe the only way you can get veggies into your toddler is to puree and hide them within a pasta sauce.
Issues like picky eating and refusing food are not uncommon in kids as they discover new textures and tastes. Usually, it resolves itself as your little one matures. But sometimes, picky eating can be an indicator of an underlying issue and you may require extra support.
Food aversion is a term used when eating behaviours have been altered for psychological or physiological reasons. It’s believed that around 5-10% of children develop food aversion at some point.
Sometimes, cases of food aversions are linked to sensory processing disorders. Sometimes a child can begin to associate nausea with different smells or textures and become unable to eat many foods without vomiting.
Physical problems can also impede a child’s ability to eat some foods. A difference in mouth structure, lack of muscle control, or painful tooth cavities can all make eating an unpleasant experience.
Healthy eating requires eating a wide variety of nutritious foods. Limited food intake means missing out on the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for nourishment.
Weight loss, difficulty putting weight on, and lack of energy can all indicate your child isn’t getting the nutrients their growing bodies need.
Extreme food aversion can lead to decaying teeth, extreme lethargy, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and regular sickness due to a poor immune system.
Symptoms of food aversions include:
- Gagging at the sight, smell or feel of food
- Eats only foods with a specific texture or colour
- Will only eat specific brands of a food
- Crying, yelling and pushing the plate away during meal times and/or refusing to come to the table
- Nausea and vomiting when eating
- Having unusual flavour preferences
- Avoids or doesn’t like getting their hands messy
- Eats less than 30 different foods
- Mealtimes that take more than 30 minutes
There are many reasons a child develops aversions to food or drink.
For some kids, swallowing difficulties due to muscular problems in the mouth might contribute to food aversion. For others, anxiety due to a past choking experience, or other learned behaviours might cause a food aversion to develop. A history of reflux, vomiting or pain in the mouth when eating can also create an aversion to food in children.
Additionally, some children who are born extremely premature, who have neurological, gastrointestinal or respiratory disorders, or genetic syndromes may be more likely to develop oral motor or sensory problems. This can include kids on the autism spectrum, although not all kids with ASD have food aversions.
The first step to a diagnosis is a thorough review of your child’s medical history. Your specialists will also want to know about your child’s reaction to certain food textures, how long it takes for them to eat, what foods they avoid, and what modifications you need to give to get your child to eat.
A speech therapist will also do an oral motor-sensory exam to look for physical contributors to the problem. They will examine your little one’s facial structure, muscle strength, range of motion and sensory reactions.
The next step is an observation of your child as they eat. Speech pathologists lookout for signs of muscular weakness or poor motor skills that could indicate physical problems. Gagging, vomiting or other strong psychological reactions could point to an oral-sensory issue.
The speech pathologist will then recommend referral to Occupational Therapy, Dietetics or Psychology for further assessment and support if appropriate.
Our MunchEase Mealtimes Clinic provides assessment and intervention for children who have developed food aversions from potential trauma, delayed oral-motor skills, disability or sensory problems.
The Clinic incorporates a multidisciplinary team including a Speech Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, and Dietician to ensure that your child gets the specialised help they need. We work together to understand your child’s needs, and holistically improve their outcomes using play-based intervention – this means your little one has FUN while learning to eat better!