Eating & Chewing Problems in Toddlers

Most toddlers resist eating at some point and many will occasionally choke on pieces of food they haven't taken the time to chew properly. Watching your toddler struggle with eating or chewing can make mealtimes very stressful and can also be very scary if choking is involved. Symptoms can range from mild to very severe and can present in many different ways. Even slight problems can have serious effects, so consult your pediatrician if you suspect there is a problem with your toddler's ability to eat or chew.


In medical terms, a problem with eating or swallowing is known as dysphagia 1. Dysphagia can include having difficulty trying to chew food, suck, or even get food to the mouth and keep it inside the mouth. If the toddler is having trouble swallowing, including trouble moving food down the throat and into the stomach, this can also be diagnosed as a symptom of dysphagia.


If your toddler is experiencing severe and frequent problems with eating or chewing, it may indicate a more serious problem. Consult with your pediatrician if your child arches her back or stiffens, drools excessively, refuses certain textures, coughs or gags during eating, or displays other worrisome symptoms such as:

  • refusing food
  • drink altogether

Toddlers can end up suffering from dehydration, malnutrition or even pneumonia if they have poor eating habits.


The first step in reaching a diagnosis of dysphagia is to take your toddler to the pediatrician or family doctor. After examining your child, the doctor may refer you to a speech-language pathologist to better assess the problem, who might observe your child eating or they may perform special tests along with an examination. A speech-language pathologist may also work with an occupational therapist, a dietitian, a development specialist, or other physicians or nurses to come up with a treatment plan to help with your child's specialized issues.


After your child's assessment, the treating physician or specialist may recommend treatment for your child, such as a form of medicine or a nutritional plan. He or she may also suggest a change in the foods and textures you are offering. Behavioral therapy can also be recommended to help change the way your child sits when eating or the way he eats. Additionally, a speech-language pathologist may offer feeding therapy to help strengthen the muscles in your child's mouth or to improve chewing or tongue movements. Included in such therapy are techniques that you can use to encourage your toddler to try other foods, if that is an issue.