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Sensory Processing & Self-Feeding: Understanding the Connection



As a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory processing, I often encounter children who struggle with self-feeding. Learning to eat is a complex task that involves the integration of ALL sensory systems. Understanding how these systems contribute to self-feeding can help caregivers and therapists support children in developing these crucial skills.



Understanding Sensory Processing

 

Sensory processing refers to the way our nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. For self-feeding, this involves not only the physical act of bringing food to the mouth but also the ability to tolerate various textures, tastes, looks, and smells.



Here’s a breakdown of how each sensory system plays a role in self-feeding:

Sensory Sytem

Role in Self-Feeding

Challenges

Tactile System (Touch)

The tactile system helps children interpret and feel the texture, temperature, and the physical properties of food and utensils. These skills help children to differentiate between various food textures, manage different consistencies, and handle utensils accurately. Children with well-developed tactile processing can more easily grasp and manipulate food, discern appropriate bite sizes, and feel comfortable with a variety of textures in their mouths.

Tactile processing difficulties may lead to aversions to certain textures, picky eating, difficulty holding utensils, or messy eating, which can hinder the development of effective self-feeding skills and affect nutritional intake.

Proprioception System (Body Awareness)

The proprioceptive system enables children to sense the position and movement of their bodies, including their hands and mouth (the jaw, lip, and tongue). Adequate proprioceptive input helps children develop the necessary motor control and coordination to grasp utensils, bring food to their mouths, and chew effectively by regulating the strength and force of their chewing movements, ensuring they can break down food properly before swallowing.

Deficits in proprioceptive processing can lead to challenges such as inefficient chewing, overstuffing the mouth, or struggling to coordinate chewing and swallowing, which can lead to choking hazards and impact overall oral-motor development and nutritional intake. It can also result in difficulty using cutlery, messy eating, or an inability to gauge the right amount of force needed to hold and manipulate food, which can impact their overall feeding independence and nutrition.

Vestibular System (Balance and Movement)

The vestibular system contributes to maintaining balance and posture while sitting at the table. Effective vestibular processing ensures that a child can stabilize their head and body, enabling them to coordinate hand movements necessary for bringing food to their mouth as well as chewing and manipulating food in the mouth. A well-regulated vestibular system also aids in controlling eye movements, which is essential for visually guiding their hands during feeding.

Vestibular processing issues may struggle with maintaining an upright posture, coordinating movements, and sustaining attention during mealtimes, impacting their ability to self-feed efficiently.

Gustatory System (Taste)

The gustatory system significantly influences self-feeding skills in children by affecting their ability to recognize and respond to different tastes and textures of food. Effective gustatory processing allows children to distinguish between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors, which can guide their food preferences and eating behaviors.

Children with gustatory processing difficulties may exhibit aversions to certain tastes or textures, leading to picky eating, refusal of certain foods, and challenges in developing independent self-feeding skills.

Olfactory System (Smell)

The sense of smell is closely linked to taste and can enhance or deter a child’s interest in food, enhance their appetite, and willingness to try new foods. It also helps identify spoiled or unsafe food. Smells can be strongly linked to emotional memories, contributing to the enjoyment and anticipation of mealtimes.

Sensitivity to smells can cause aversions to certain foods, while under-responsiveness can lead to a lack of interest in food or an inability to detect unpleasant odors leading to food aversions, limited dietary variety, and reluctance to participate in self-feeding activities.

Visual System (Sight)

Visual sensory processing is crucial for self-feeding skills in children, as it enables them to see and interpret the food on their plate, judge portions and sensory qualities of food, and guide their hand movements to successfully bring food to their mouth. Effective visual processing helps children judge distances, distinguish colors and shapes of different foods, and coordinate their eye-hand movements.

Visual processing difficulties can result in challenges in self-feeding, such as becoming overwhelmed when a food changes visually, difficulty targeting food, spilling, or reluctance to try visually unfamiliar foods.

Auditory System (Hearing)

Auditory sensory processing influences self-feeding skills in children by interpreting the sound of foods when chewing, for example, a crunchy, hard food is louder to chew than a soft food. It also can affect their ability to focus and stay engaged during mealtimes. Effective auditory processing allows children to filter out background noises and attend to relevant sounds, such as verbal instructions or social interactions at the table.

Children sensitive to sounds might find chewing certain foods overwhelming leading to avoidance of foods. Children may also become easily distracted or overwhelmed by surrounding noises, leading to difficulties in concentrating on eating tasks. This can result in disrupted mealtimes, slower eating, and potential frustration, hindering their ability to develop independent self-feeding skills.

Interoceptive System (Internal Organs)

Interoceptive sensory processing is critical for self-feeding skills in children, as it involves the awareness of internal body signals related to hunger and fullness. Effective interoceptive processing helps children recognize when they are hungry and need to eat, as well as when they are full and should stop eating. This internal awareness guides their eating behavior, allowing them to self-regulate their food intake.

Children with interoceptive processing difficulties may struggle to identify these internal cues, leading to challenges such as overeating, undereating, or inconsistent eating patterns. This can affect their ability to develop healthy self-feeding habits and maintain appropriate nutrition.


Supporting Sensory Processing in Self-Feeding

 

Understanding the sensory foundations of self-feeding allows us to create supportive strategies for children. Here are some sensory savvy tips to help:


  1. Adjust the Environment: Set your feeder up for success right from the start by minimizing distractions, ensuring optimal seated positioning with the feet grounded, and creating a calm, quiet environment during meals.

  2. Create a Routine: Consistent mealtime routines can provide a sense of security and predictability, which can help reduce anxiety around eating. It also helps children understand there is a beginning, middle, and end to mealtimes.

  3. Make foods manageable: Slowly introduce new shapes, textures, tastes, and smells to help children become more comfortable with different sensory experiences. Consider adding small, tiny amounts of new foods on the plate at a time. If something is too overwhelming get creative with other ways of engaging with foods like putting them in containers with lids to look at or zip-lock bags to feel with a safe barrier.

  4. Positive Social Role modeling: Encourage and praise attempts at self-feeding, even if they are messy or imperfect. Keep talk at the table about the foods you are eating without judgement, i.e. sensory qualities of foods (soft, crunchy, hot, wet, spicy, etc.) not whether it is "good" or "bad". Co-regulate with your child if you notice they are becoming overwhelmed or stressed out by the foods.

  5. Sensory Play: Play dampens the stress response. Engage in sensory play activities outside of mealtimes to help children become more comfortable with different sensations. Playing with food is a great way for kids to learn about the sensory characteristics of food before it enters the mouth which reduces anticipatory anxiety about unknown sensory processing and provides predictability.


By understanding and addressing the sensory aspects of self-feeding, we can support children in developing the skills they need to eat independently and enjoy a variety of foods. As caregivers and therapists, our role is to provide the right balance of support and challenge, helping children to thrive in their sensory world!


 

If you have questions or need more personalized advice, feel free to reach out.

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