When I was at Uni, still figuring out what area I wanted to work in after I finished my degree, someone said to me “people often go on to study something related to what they struggled with when they were younger”. I believe there is some truth in that statement, as I was the kid that could not finish a meal, could not swallow her food, and would spend hours trying to finish her lunch. I would throw food out so that my mum didn’t notice I hadn’t eaten it. Visits to my grandparents house made it possible for me to always be well nourished as that was an environment where I definitely would eat at!. So, In my case feeding was never a problem from a nutritional point of view… But I definitely gave my beautiful mum many headaches over it!.
Feeding is such an important part of our everyday life. On average, we typically eat 3 main meals and two snacks in a day. For a child with feeding difficulties, that is 5 opportunities during a single day to face something they find very challenging. Some families experience mealtimes as a very stressful time of the day, where everyone becomes emotional and things do not go to plan. Parents can often feel guilty, but it is important to remember that parents are not 100% responsible for successful meals. It is the parent’s job (50%) to offer what foods are available for a particular meal, and it is the child’s job (50%)to eat them.
Let’s have a look at strategies we can put in place at home, to start working on making mealtimes a more enjoyable time for everyone:
Posture: providing children with as much support as needed when sitting during mealtimes is important, so that their brains are able to focus on feeding, rather than where their body is in space. Feet need to be supported on the ground. Their back needs to be touching the back of the chair, with the knees over the edge of the seat at the same time. You can use yoga blocks, books and/or footrests to adjust your child’s positioning, and your OT can help you with this if needed to!.
Warning: give your child a warning 5-10 minutes before it is time to come to the table. This is when they can engage in gross motor or sensory preparation activities.
At the table: focus on being a social role model. Talk about food, avoiding subjective terms, for example: “I like”, “It’s yummy”. Instead, use objective terms such as “this apple is red, sometimes they can be green or pink”. If possible, do Family Style serving, where everyone gets the same food options in the middle, and each person gets to decide what they want to eat from those options. Children who are not ready to eat a particular food item, can assist their parents by passing that item to them (it is important not to pressure kids to eat particular foods if they are not ready).
Structure: as often as you can, use the same place for meals and follow approximately the same time schedule. Limit snacks to 15 minutes and main meals to 30 minutes.
It is important to remember that every family’s situation is unique and not all strategies will work for every child/family. Feeding is a complex process, and there are many factors to be considered. I know first-hand how stressful feeding can be and how much hard work parents put into it. Give yourself grace through these particularly challenging times too and celebrate every win (no matter how small it might seem!). This post is intended as a general guide. Please talk to your Occupational Therapist if you require further support.