How to cope with a difficult eater…

Food and eating has always been a challenge for us. It started as a baby with allergies and the stress of finding the right formula, and then got worse at 18 months when he just stopped wanting to eat all together. Now he’s 4 and his social and sensory needs play a huge part in his eating…plus he is just not a food fan (not really sure how he’s my child, haha).

I think it’s all been a combination of things…

  • Allergies (milk protein, peanuts, kiwis…)
  • Sensory needs
  • Being a ‘toddler’ and now an ‘independent boy’
  • Having better things to do than eat.

Some days he eats the same amount as a flea, other days he’ll eat like a horse. It all depends on a lot of different factors.

Where we are

J eats better at home than when we’re anywhere else. At home, we have a routine for food. He knows what food we have, what food he likes, when and where we’ll eat.

Don’t get me wrong, he still fights it and I lose track of how many times I say ‘put food in your mouth’ or ‘eat a little more’. However it’s less of a fight.

When out J is distracted by what’s happening around us. Food may taste different to how Mummy makes it, there’s more fun things to do than sit still and eat and there might be sounds, smells etc that are different and off putting.

What we’ve been doing

If we’ve been busy and J has had to deal with a lot going on then he less likely to eat. This is when he will snack and pick. He wants little things. When we get home he wants time to desensitise. He wants to be amongst his things and have his own space. There’s no point giving him a plate of food at this time.

What he’s drunk

When J was younger he looked to drink. He would drink he’s allergy formula, water, squash, juice. All yummy stuff. I don’t know if it’s because drinking is less sensory or stressful than eating but drink was never an issue. He’d pick it over eating…to be honest he still does.

However, if he had drunk too much then he wouldn’t eat. This was especially true for heavier drinks like milk or juice as it makes the stomach feel ‘full’ so children are less likely to eat.

Sensory Input

As well as the usual stress of being a child, J is also autistic. Sensory factors contribute a lot to his eating. We found that sensory over stimulation and under stimulation was part of the issues and solution.

For example, J loves ice lollies. He will eat no end of them (as long as he doesn’t have to touch it). I didn’t know whether it was a good thing or bad thing to let him have them. After talking to occupational therapist they suggested it may be a case that J’s mouth is under sensitive.

Basically he doesn’t feel food the same way as other children. It needs to be more ‘obvious’ so cold, crunchy or a big mouthful for him to feel it’s there. Ice lollies were helpful as it woke his mouth up so he was ready for food.

We tried to give J snacks before main food that were crunchy (breadsticks or apple slices), cold (ice lolly) etc. This did help and even now he’ll eat more when it’s crunchy foods and in chunks so he can feel the food more in his mouth.

J won’t eat messy foods or squishy foods. He doesn’t like the feel of them. We work around this by eliminating them. There’s no point giving J a plate of food with things that put him off eating. Yes, it reinforces the fussiness but at least he’s eating…and after all, we as adults have a choice in what we eat so why shouldn’t children?

After years of speaking to occupational therapy, dieticians, paediatrician and other families who have been through similar situations here is a list of suggestions that are worth considering…

  • Use vitamin tablets/drops (if you can ones with calcium then please do-especially I’d like J, your choice has milk allergy).
  • Focus on calories (stick to full fat varieties of food, foods in oil etc, if you find food they do like then add more of it too the plate).
  • Still introduce new foods (for us it works better on separate plate, and to stick to one new food for a few weeks. Score adding any more)
  • Stick to routine (establish an eating routine and stick to it. By knowing what’s happening and the expectations it creates security so Child feels more comfortable for eat).
  • Make a list of ‘approved food’ to see if there’s link between what child will/won’t eat. Can you build on this?
  • Speak to professionals…dietician, GP, paediatrician and/or health visitors. They can assess and advise, and can identify any underlying reason behind the food difficulties.
  • Do mouth exercises (crunchy/chewy foods, bubble blowing, use of straws or silly faces in the mirror). This helps wake the mouth up to help child’s muscles in the mouth to be ready to eat.
  • Limit filling drinks before food is due. Stick to water for meals if possible. In our house there’s a rule to eat first, drink after.
  • Make food fun-we often make dinner into funny shapes, use fun plates etc. this often encourages J to engage in his food-even if he doesn’t necessarily eat it.
  • Don’t worry about how children eat…there’s a lot of pressure to sit still, use your cutlery, keep food on plate, eat this first, then that. Take away what pressure you can. We have cutlery available but don’t badger J to use it. He prefers finger food and if that’s the best way to get him to eat then at least food is getting in him.
  • Little and often-if your child really wont eat meals then stop worrying about them. Have food on offer little and often instead of a whole plateful three times a day. Some children’s at better when they can ‘pick’ or see smaller amounts of food. It takes away some pressure.If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last 4 years is ‘fed is best’. As long as your child is eating then sod where, what, how, when. Any food that makes it into the mouth is a victory. But please seek advice. Don’t try and do this on your own. You need to make sure that the suggestions your trying are healthy and will be in YOUR child’s best interest.

Also, try not to panic. This won’t help you, or your child. Enjoy fun with food such as baking, food play or laughing as you suck up spaghetti. If you ever need to vent then you know where to find me…Facebook, Instagram or twitter x

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jade says:

    My boy is a very fussy eater he is also a sensor seeker and I think after reading this he may have an under sensitive mouth. He also likes crunchy chewy things and it would certainly make sense. I probably also let him drink too much before eating. Thanks for a really helpful post x


    1. mummyest2014 says:

      I’m so glad my ramblings are helpful haha. I’ve done a lot of trial and error over the last few years to see what works for us so I hope it helps you x


      1. Jade says:

        I had always dismissed the eating issues as being sensory as I was thinking of touch not in his mouth! So obvious now but would not have considered this without it being pointed out. Sharing your experience has certainly helped me x

        Liked by 1 person

      2. mummyest2014 says:

        Thank you. People often think of mouth based sensory seekers who chew toys or like to bite but the under sensitive mouths aren’t talked about so much x


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