You could probably save yourself from daily headaches if your child would just eat the food you put in front of him -- but due to a sensory disorder, your child might flat out refuse to eat certain foods or will even gag when he tries to eat those foods that trigger his hypersensitivity. Outsiders might call it “picky eating,” but you know your child’s sensitivities go beyond that willfulness. By addressing the issue at the core of your child’s eating habits, you can improve his ability to tolerate many types of food.
Encourage your child to try new foods. Place only one new food on your child's favorite plate. Let him smell it or touch it, and you can demonstrate eating it and smiling or saying, "Yum!". After you try the food, say, "Now you try!" Use the "just one more bite" trick to get your child to try the food at least three times before he decides he likes or doesn't like it. For each new food your child tries, give him a non-food reward, such as a star in his sticker chart on the fridge or a big hug.
Let your kid play with his food. Outline what behaviors are unacceptable, such as throwing the whole plate of food on the floor. What your child can do, however, is feel the texture of his food with his fingers. This process helps your child explore the food with his tactile sense before he uses his oral sense. For children with oral hypersensitivity, using tactile experience first feels less threatening, according to Sensory Processing Disorder.com.
Grind up foods when possible. Many children with sensory texture disorders prefer soft textures rather than very crunchy or hard foods. For example, applesauce will likely be more successful than a raw carrot.
Try foods similar to your child's favorite foods. If he loves spaghetti, try whole wheat noodles, which have more nutritional value than plain spaghetti, and you can even julienne vegetables to make them look or feel more like noodles. Picky eating due to a sensory disorder is serious because your child might get inadequate nutrition, and he could carry poor habits into adulthood, according to nutrition therapist Diane Keddy for RaiseHealthyEaters.com.
Introduce new foods with a variety of textures and temperatures. It’s a trial-and-error process, but it is an ideal way to find many foods your child will tolerate. He might refuse raw carrots, but if they are cooked and at a warm temperature, he may love them.
Use oral-motor toys to stimulate your child’s oral sense. Use a vibrating toothbrush against the tongue and cheek before brushing the teeth. Give your child a variety of oral toys, including whistles, recorders, blow toys, straws, bubbles, finger brushes, chewy tubing and oral massagers. Your child’s occupational therapist might recommend some of these products. Ask the therapist to show you how to properly use oral stimulation items.
Create a “sensory diet” for your child. Coined by occupational therapist Patricia Wilbarger, the sensory diet helps integrate all your child’s senses -- even if your child only struggles with oral hypersensitivity, exploring and exciting all of the senses promotes a balance that should improve your child’s oral sensitivity, according to Sensory Smarts.com, the official site of the book "Raising a Sensory Smart Child" by Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske. Your sensory diet should include a daily schedule of activities that focus on your child's senses. Start the morning with a foot massage or audio CD to stimulate the tactile and auditory senses. After school, go to the playground or the grocery store to work on proprioceptive (muscle sensations) and vestibular (sense of movement) integration. When preparing dinner, let your child help you, which gives him extra opportunity to explore his food by touch before he eats. For bath time, use a lavender-scented soap to affect the sense of smell as well as to promote calm.
Don’t be afraid to have your child evaluated by his pediatrician -- he can refer you to a dietician and occupational therapist, who will give you additional techniques tailored to your child’s sensory disorder. Praise your child rather than focus on his struggles. Even if he just licked a new food, give verbal praise to let him know he accomplished something.