By Melodie Veldhuizen
Sensory processing disorder is when the brain struggles to process information by means of the senses. Parents often confuse SPDF with fussiness, but children with this disorder experience food in a totally different way than other children. Because the brain cannot regulate sensory messages in connection with specific textures, tastes, smells and even the colours of certain foods, the child develops an aversion to certain foods and refuses to eat it.
Children with SPDF experience the taste, smell, texture (in their mouths and even how it feels when touching it) as well as the colour of some foods as an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience (also known as sensory overload). Some researchers describe this experience as physical or mental pain. Parents who on top of this nag children every day to eat things he does not like, cause emotional tension in their children apart from the body’s negative physiological reaction to certain foods.
How does one identify SPDF in children?
- Eats fewer than 10 types of food, but they will eat their favourite foods or dishes any time of the day
- Refuses to taste new types of food
- Becomes nauseous when they taste, smell, see or touch certain foods
- Prefers food with specific types of texture – mostly crispy foods, but some children prefer foods with soft or smooth textures. These preferences could even be extended to foods of certain colours and tastes and specific trade marks – food therapists call it food jag.
- Do not like their hands to get dirty (with food, but also with mud, soil, clay)
- As a baby or toddler never put toys and other objects in his mouth and chewed on it
- Will still chew on toys and other objects after the age of 18 months
How to help your child overcome the problem
- Play and cook together: We teach our children from a young age not to play with food, but sometimes the end justifies the means. Make him used to the texture, smell and colours of new foods by letting him swirl his fingers around in a bowl of yogurt or pick up and smell a variety of cubes or strips of food. Join him in art projects involving food and/or snacks. For instance, let him crumble cookies, or paste cereal flakes on paper with icing sugar. Allow him to help you cook in the kitchen and encourage him to feel, smell and taste the different ingredients. The relaxing time together could encourage him to eventually do it spontaneously.
- Use whatever he likes as a basis: For instance, if he likes macaroni without anything added to it, gradually add fresh herbs or a sauce to stimulate his taste organs. Later on you can add something more solid such as grated cheese.
- Encourage your child to talk about his fears and acknowledge them: Ask him why a certain food nauseates him and makes him uneasy. Ensure him that you understand that he finds it difficult to eat certain things and that it is fine, but that it will be good if he tries it and that he will see that it is not as bad as he imagined.
- Gradually make your child used to new tastes, textures, smells and tastes: There are various ways to do this to help him overcome his “fear” for certain foods. The secret is to gradually increase the variety of foods and the quantity of each type of food so as to gradually decrease his physical discomfort with and fear of the food.
– Select one new foodstuff. Just let him smell it the first day, touch it with his lips the next day, then lick it, take a bite of it next time and keep it in his mouth for a short while, and take a bite of it the next day and to chew and swallow it. Terminate the process by encouraging him with his favourite meal or dish. Follow this up by encouraging him to eat one bite more of it each day until in your opinion he eats an acceptable portion of it as part of a meal.
– Make a “food train” each compartment of which is a small bowl containing a foodstuff he likes, with his favourite food right at the end. And then, in the guard’s van, a new dish he should try to eat. You could even change it around and put the new food in the first compartment, with his favourite food right at the end.
– Allow choices by putting a variety of foods that you want him to taste on or in a bowl with partitions. Let him choose at least two that he wants to eat as a snack. It would be progress even if he initially only licks it to experience the taste and texture.
- Toothbrush: Let him brush his teeth at least twice a day with a vibrating toothbrush. Also brush the insides of the cheeks as well as the sides and top of the tongue.
- Routine: A fixed mealtime routine is essential. Always eat in the same place, at the same time and with the same utensils. This gives your child a feeling of security, which will help him to overcome fears.
- Set an example: The examples set by parents, siblings and other adults by eating everything on their plates and their willingness to try new tastes can have a positive influence on a child with SPDF. Praise him every time he eats something he eats something he did not want to eat previously.
- Patience: Be patient and do not put pressure on your child. Becoming angry and irritated will only aggravate the situation. Perseverance without duress can help your child to eventually eat more than only ten types of food.
Baby Sparks. https://babysparks.com/2019/10/24/picky-eating-or-sensory-issue-how-to-tell-the-difference/
Eating Disorder Hope. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/connection-sensory-process-ed
Food and Nutrition. https://foodandnutrition.org/september-october-2014/picky-vs-problem-eater-closer-look-sensory-processing-disorder/
Organization for Autism Research. https://researchautism.org/its-not-picky-eating-5-strategies-for-sensory-food-sensitivities/
Your Kids Table. https://yourkidstable.com/sensory-processing-and-picky-eating/