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Nurturing Sensory Skills for Successful Feeding

Nurturing Sensory Skills for Successful Feeding
Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OT/L
January 11, 2024

An adult feeding a child with a spoon.

Mealtime is when families share food, memories, and connections, and children receive the nutrients that help them grow, develop, and learn. But what happens when sensory processing differences keep our youngest clients from fully participating in these mealtime bonds?

Feeding is not just another part of the routine; it's a developmental journey. As children grow more accustomed to sensory experiences during eating, it builds the foundation for their evolving relationship with food. These mealtime experiences play a pivotal role in skill development and sensory integration.

Guiding Parents in Supporting Their Child’s Feeding Journey

With infants eating around 8-12 times per day and toddlers 5-8 times, parents have ample opportunities to nurture feeding skills.

The journey starts with a relationship of mutual trust: children trust their parents to nourish them, while parents entrust their children's instincts and appetites. This bond is where responsive feeding becomes essential. 

It's built on:

  • Prompting: Responding when the infant shows hunger signs
  • Emotional Support: Focusing on patience and relationship-building rather than pressuring to eat
  • Contentment: Recognizing a child's comfort levels and experimenting with different tastes and textures to enhance the mealtime experience
  • Age-appropriateness: Encouraging autonomy and self-feeding, modeling behaviors, & introducing them to diverse foods

Sensory experiences in feeding can be broadly divided:

  • Interoception: Internal body cues, like hunger or satiety
  • Vestibular: Head movement & spatial positioning
  • Proprioception: Muscle & joint awareness
  • Exteroception: External stimuli such as visuals, smells, tastes, touch, & sounds

Occupational Therapy: The Guiding Hand

An occupational therapist (OT) is like a detective, analyzing the nuances that affect a child’s feeding. With parents as constant companions, training them can amplify positive outcomes.

Feeding success is a two-way street, depending on both parent and child. It's essential to gauge parents' emotional states, their stress levels, or if they're unintentionally pressuring their child with "healthy" eating expectations. Such pressures can amplify mealtime stress.

To enhance feeding participation, OTs can:

  • Help parents recognize their child’s emotional & sensory cues
  • Advocate for skin-to-skin bonding, swaddling, & positioning to enhance sensory comfort
  • Guide on the right timing & food portions, especially if a parent is anxious about a child’s volume of food 
  • Suggest changes in the environment (e.g., appropriate utensils, reducing distractions) 
  • Teach parents to interpret a child's desire for control as a quest for autonomy & safety

A strength-based approach lets us recognize where a child feels secure and skilled, allowing us to fortify those areas. With control and autonomy, children find their comfort zone in eating. Coaching parents to modify the food offering, build relationships, change the environment, or change the experience can help feeding feel more comfortable and safe for kids. 

Learn more about this topic with the OccupationalTherapy.com course, Sensory Skills: Helping Parents to Support Sensory Development in their Children for Pediatric Feeding Success, presented by Karen Dilfer, MS, OTR/L, and Stephanie Cohen, MA, CCC-SLP, CLC. 

elisabeth bahr

Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OT/L

Elisabeth Bahr is a writer, artist, and occupational therapist. She holds a master of science from NYU and a doctorate in occupational therapy from BU. She is currently a health writer, educator, and advocate. You can find her consulting work at pegasuswellness.co and her writing on Continued and around the internet.

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