When a picky eater isn’t just a picky eater

Kids who eat fewer than twenty foods, demand a different meal than the rest of the family, avoid entire food groups or are slow to try new foods are often labeled as picky eaters. Many times families deal with their picky eaters by using a behavioral approach, such as earning iPad time for eating a certain amount of food at a meal, not allowing the child to leave the table until she tries everything on her plate, or determining how many bites a child must take before earning a preferred food.  While a behavioral approach may help to change behaviors in other areas, it typically backfires when used when dealing with feeding issues.

Most of the time a child’s refusal of foods is not a behavioral problem. More often than not, there is an underlying issue that is fueling the picky eating.  Some kids have oral sensory integration issues that limit them from eating a range of textures. An example of an oral sensory integration issue is difficulty feeling the food in their mouth (imagine having your mouth numbed at the dentist and then trying to eat). Since they can’t feel it correctly, they are unable to move the food to the back of their mouth for a swallow. For others, certain textures and tastes can be too intense, which leads to the food being rejected. Oral-motor difficulty can be an issue as well. Eating is a complex process and if a child does not have the motor coordination to chew a food and then move it to the appropriate place to initiate a swallow, the eating process can break down, leading to a refusal of certain foods that are more difficult to handle.

If your child has been labeled as a “picky eater,” it’s worth having an evaluation by a qualified professional. Behavioral approaches, bribing, and drawing attention to the pickiness usually makes the situation worse, leading to less and less foods your child will eat.


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