If you've ever watch a feeding therapy session at Lowcountry Therapy Center, you might have observed a child poking, smelling, licking, kissing, and smooshing foods before eating them. While it may look like play, it's learning - and it's an important part of eating.
When an adult is given a new food to try, we automatically start analyzing it with as many senses as we can. We notice its odor. We look at the color, and what we can tell about the texture based on appearance. We might even see or hear someone else eating it, giving us valuable information about the consistency, so we begin to prepare what our teeth and tongue will do once it gets in our mouth. We may poke our fork into the food, or pick it up with our fingers. Depending on how the food responds to that touch, we get more information about how hard our teeth are going to have to work while eating. Descriptive words like bitter, sour, and spicy, or comparing/contrasting to other foods we’ve tried before, are meaningful to an adult, and further prepare us for what to expect.
Now imagine being asked to close your eyes, plug your nose, and open your mouth for an unknown food to be placed in. Does that make you anxious? For a child that doesn’t know how to analyze food using his or her senses, every bite of a new food feels like that! They can physically see the food, but do not know how to analyze it to prepare for what to expect – that shininess can imply wetness, for example. They can feel the food with their fingers or fork, but may not know how that translates to what their teeth and tongue will need to do with it. Furthermore, until taught, a child may not understand descriptive words, or may not have the experiences to compare/contrast to similar foods. On top of all of this, motor deficits, sensory-processing deficits, and past negative experiences can further influence feeding difficulties.
So the next time you see your child poking and smooshing a food, consider helping describe what they may be feeling. Talk about how you already knew it would be wet, because it was shiny. Talk about how that hard cracker is going to mean that your teeth will have to bite down hard to crunch through it. And exaggerate those bites (mouth open and all), so the child can see what YOUR tongue and teeth do with it. If you feel silly doing it, that’s okay! Making mealtimes fun can help your child feel calmer, and maybe even be more willing to touch, kiss, lick, and even bite that new vegetable you, put on their plate.
By Krista Flack, MS OTR/L, Pediatric Occupational Therapist