Children who struggle to try new foods, eat new textures or even put toys / food in their mouth are frequently diagnosed as having ‘oral aversion’. Basically this means they do not want to put anything (or very limited things) in their mouth or sometimes even near their face.
I have worked with babies who are tube fed and won’t mouth anything except a dummy; toddlers who never chewed on toys and never explored their worlds through their mouth; older children and teens who have sensory processing challenges (maybe as part of a larger challenge such as Autism or Down Syndrome) and have been extremely specific about the texture of their foods from an early age (often dry, crunchy, finger foods). These children also often HATE TOOTHBRUSHING!
One of the first ways a baby learns about their world is through their mouth – the feel and smell of a nipple or teat; the taste of ‘first foods’ from a spoon; the comfort and self-soothing a dummy or sucking thumb/fingers brings; exploring texture through mouthing toys and often ‘non edible’ items; helping with teething by biting down on objects (food or other).
Tube fed children often ‘miss’ these steps as their mouth and face has been exposed to many experiences (often negative) that non tube fed babies haven’t. They don’t want to put anything near their mouth for fear that it will hurt or be invasive. They may find comfort in their own specific dummy but not in anything else – especially not a spoon.
Parents of children with sensory processing challenges also often look back and reflect ‘they never mouthed anything as a baby’ or ‘I never had to worry about bits and pieces on the floor as they would never put anything in their mouth’.
It makes it very difficult then to expect tube fed children or sensory hypervigilant eaters to just ‘try it’ and put it in their mouth when for so long the mouth has been a ‘no go zone’.
The first step in helping these children – no matter the age – is to stop asking them to ‘try it’. Show the children other ways of exploring the food – with their hands, utensils, straws, cutters, knives, mixing, smelling – so that they can start to teach themselves what that food will feel like, smell like, will it be warm/cold, will it be slimy/dry. They also need to see you doing these things – in a very natural way (they know when you’re ‘acting’ to try to get them to do it!); so eat with them and all them to be exposed to new experiences.
Actively trying to ‘desensitise’ their mouth with ‘exercises’ can make it more of a struggle and reinforce for the children that ‘this is not nice’. Once children have trust and confidence with mouthing unfamiliar objects and foods then we can start to introduce specific oral activities but in the first instance we have to allow the children to feel safe enough to do this. This is when ‘doing less as adults helps the children do more’. A really tricky concept and one which experienced Feeding Therapists will assist you in building into your everyday meals.
Remember – it took months and years for children to learn not to explore with their mouths……it will take months and sometimes years for them to learn to be adventurous Lively Eaters.
Speech Pathologist and Lively Feeding Therapist!