A sensory issue is a problem related to the processing of information from the senses, like sight or smell. Sensory-based feeding difficulties can occur in children with gastrointestinal reflux, EoE (a type of allergic inflammation in the esophagus), sensory processing disorders, or conditions like Autism. Children with sensory based feeding difficulties may over or under respond to different types of stimuli. You may see a child who becomes upset with non-preferred food placed near them, asking for a strong flavor like ketchup on all foods, refusing to eat, gagging with foods and smells or simply avoiding the eating space.
How could sensory issues effect eating?
- Tastes of certain foods could be too strong or too plain for a child with sensory based feeding difficulties. For children who over respond, try milder foods with limited spices or acidity in them. For a child who under responds, try adding bigger flavours to their food like lemon, lime, or favourite seasonings in place of added salt or sugar.
- Smells could be too strong for a child with sensory issues. Cold food does not have as much smell as hot food. Avoid scented products like perfumes, room sprays, and scented cleaning products in and around the feeding space.
- Sounds can be overwhelming for children with sensory based feeding difficulties. Avoid distractions like screens or loud music while eating .
- Touch as it relates to food might be the texture of a food and how it feels in the mouth (e.g. creamy foods like yogurt) or how it feels on the fingers (e.g. sticky foods like oranges). It could also be a preference for the temperature of foods or drinks, or how consistent the texture of the food is (e.g. macaroni and cheese or pasta noodles in a thin soup broth)
- Sight could be a preference or avoidance to a certain colour or shape of food. It can relate to the lighting in the eating area, especially bright lighting can contribute to sensory overload for children with sensory based feeding difficulties.
To seek support or for more information:
Sensory based feeding difficulties can be caused by many factors. Registered Dietitians may provide more direct support with nutrition assessments and work with other professionals (SLP, OT) as part of feeding programs to address food aversions and sensory issues that may interfere with chewing, swallowing or the intake of certain nutrients. In BC, call 811 for 24/7 health advice and call Monday-Friday, 9-5 to speak to a Registered Dietitian or to get referred to services in your community.
For children with EoE (eosinophilic esophagitis), irritation is caused by white blood cells called eosinophils in the esophagus click here.
The SOS approach to feeding can be used by parents and healthcare providers to support children with sensory based feeding difficulties. Learn more here.