Feeding Therapy Approaches Differ When Children Struggle to Eat: Find the Right Help for Your Family

The article, When Your Baby Won’t Eat chronicles the heartbreak and triumph of one family’s journey with pediatric feeding struggles. The author and mother shares some of the confusion around finding the right help for her family. Virginia Sole-Smith writes, “Do you try to correct the behavior- training a child to eat well –Pavlov Style- or do you try to rediscover that primal urge and trust her to take it from there? It’s a divisive question among the doctors and therapists who work with children like Violet, as well as a debate unfolding consciously or not, around most kitchen tables in the country.” Feeding therapy programs differ; from the ABA, or applied behavioral approach on one end of the spectrum (the Pavlovian approach) where adults may hold a child’s hands down, may use “gentle mandibular guidance” and “escape extinction“, to a more responsive approach where the child’s reactions and behaviors are not viewed as behaviors to eliminate, but as vital communication and clues to guide treatment. Confusing for parents is that many treatment programs, even with opposing approaches, sound the same online, using words like “child-led” and “family-centered” to the point that parents might have no idea what is actually happening in therapy. Parents, we know it is beyond confusing; experts in the field of feeding kids often express opposite viewpoints, with OTs, SLPs, MDs, RDs, PhDs disagreeing on the best ways to treat pediatric feeding challenges. Consider the following sentiments, from folks in positions of authority. Which is “correct”? Never force your child to eat. You’re the parent, it’s the same as with seat-belts, just make them eat it! If your child gags the puree,...

Is STEPs+ Approach “Enough” for Children with Complex Developmental or Medical Challenges?

The following is Jenny’s (SLP, co-author) response to a comment that the STEPs+ approach described in our book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating may not be “enough” for children with complex medical or developmental problems. The comment implied that the approach was solely about placing food on the child’s tray day after day; the response follows: “While I understand your concerns about progress with a medically complex child, we feel strongly that our approach can and does work for these children. Using the strategies at home while an experienced therapist guides you and your child in making specific skill gains is the best-case scenario. Putting food in front of a child on the tray doesn’t paint the whole picture. As the director of a feeding clinic, I have worked with hundreds of children who are NOT neurotypical, have multiple complex medical challenges, and who are severe enough in their feeding issues to require feeding tubes, using this approach. Most of my patients and my co-author’s clients have already had other therapies, from behavioral to SOS and sensory play therapies, and haven’t made progress. When the STEPS+ approach is applied, which can often take weeks or months for some families to get the hang of, with attention to gaining skills and addressing issues such as you describe your son having, these children make significant gains over time. Many have their feeding tubes removed. However, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it may not be what every parent feels is right for their child, and that’s okay. What is learned over a long period of time (months or years) cannot be undone and...

Facilitating (Not Forcing) Your Child’s Eating (Extreme Picky Eating Edition)

“I’m not forcing, I’m just aggressively facilitating…” I was watching a show on Netflix* when I caught this line, “I’m not forcing, I’m just aggressively facilitating.” My ears perked at the words facilitation and force, and of course made me think of children with extreme picky eating, of feeding, and the “aggressive facilitation” that can sometimes happen, even in feeding therapies. There is much research that suggests that when children are pressured or coerced to eat, overall intake, and intake of fruits and veggies decreases.  Here are a few examples… “…approximately half of all mothers and a greater proportion of fathers… ignore the child’s hunger signals and may use force, punishment, or inappropriate rewards to coerce the child to eat. These practices initially appear effective, but become counterproductive, resulting in poor adjustment of energy intake, consumption of fewer fruits and vegetables, and a greater risk of under- or overweight.” (Kerzner 2015) “…stringent parental controls can… limit children’s acceptance of a variety of foods and disrupt children’s regulation of energy intake by altering children’s responsiveness to internal cues of hunger and satiety.” (Brown & Ogden, 2004) Pressure to eat likely disrupts child’s ability to respond to internal cues of hunger and satiety (Carper et al., 2000) Pressure to eat … “exacerbate feeding problems and make mealtimes more negative for both parent and child.” (Harris 1992; Skuse 1993) Pressuring strategies could be implicated in the development and persistence of these problems (Farrow & Blissett, 2008) Pressure to eat predicted food avoidance behaviors: slow eating, emotional undereating, satiety responsiveness (Powell 2011) Parent prompts assoc w/ food avoidant behaviors, correcting for child emotionality and maternal...

Trust Your Turtle: Patience with Picky Eating Progress

Here’s a story I read recently and shared with a client when she asked, “How can I get my daughter to accept new foods on her plate once she’s feeling good about her safe foods? Can’t I just put them on her plate?”   A woman was with her college geology class on a field trip by a river. She noticed a turtle up the river bank near a road and worried that the turtle would get hit by a car. So, she carried the turtle back down the hill and put it in the water. Afterwards, the professor came to her and said, “That turtle has probably spent weeks crawling up the hill to lay her eggs in the muddy slope and now she will have to start all over again.” The moral was, “Ask the turtle first.” (Gloria Steinem from her book, My Life on the Road) (See below our clarification of “ask”. Most children won’t want to be verbally queried along the way. Our moral is to be responsive to your turtle.)    What does this have to do with feeding? Well, many children with extreme picky eating have anxiety around foods, and often have struggled for years. As parents, and even professionals, we hope for and want improvements NOW, or in say,  six weeks. But progress is generally slow, slow, slow, and it might not look like what we think of as “progress” (eating new foods). Sometimes when we miss early signs of progress (less anxiety, eating more safe foods, curious about foods but not yet tasting or eating them...) it is easy to want to rush the process, to pick up our little turtles and carry...

Childhood Fears: Food or Fluffy, the Fear is Real

When M was little she had a dog phobia. I’m talking screaming, climbing on me, uncontrollable fear of even a toy poodle.  I can’t count how many people tried to talk her out of her fear, usually with a dog thrust into her personal space, and often against my explicit requests for them to stop. Take the German shepherd owner whose dog was off-leash, jumping on me while M clawed at my hair shrieking, and the owner kept smiling, “Oh, she won’t hurt you! She’s very gentle.” Well-intentioned dog owners (including friends and family) would bring dogs closer, insisting the dog wasn’t scary and everyone loved the dog, and, “Stop being so silly!” (super helpful)  or, “Look, Timmy is younger than you, and he’s petting the doggie!” (Throw some shame in while you’re at it! Works every time!)  I wish we could have had a sign at those times that said, “Seriously afraid of dogs. Back off. It’s not your job to get my kid over her fears…” It is this sticker that I saw on my walk home that led to this post. If I was behind a car on a hill and it started rolling, I might get mad or honk. But with this sign (Kid Driver   Manual), I know it’s a young person who is learning and I’ll be more patient. This sign reminds us to cut this kid driver some slack; have a little patience and understanding (something I struggle with behind the wheel sometimes). Of course it made me think of kids learning to eat. Imagine the child with extreme picky eating who only takes crackers at...

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