Fussy Eaters and Mealtime Meltdowns

Children of all ages can be fussy eaters on account of sensory processing difficulties. As babies, these children often experience some difficulty in latching onto the breast or they could have experienced colic and reflux. There is usually some indication in infancy that these babies are fussy babies in other respects as well. Such babies often do not take well to transitioning from the bottle or breast, to eating solids. They might also be fussy about food textures. They might not handle uncomfortable textures in their mouths. These children might dislike squishy textures, such as avocado or jelly. They may only want to eat soft pureed foods, as well as they may want to stick with baby foods, which are soft, pureed, and lump-free. They may also fear choking on such foods, which have lumps and bits in them. Preparing for these babies and children can be a nightmare!

Parents try to keep the peace by offering the foods that their children prefer to eat, and they end up eating only a very limited repertoire of foods. This does not make nutritional sense as the child’s diet is not likely to be balanced nor to provide adequately for the nutritional needs of the child’s growing body. The child is likely to show a preference for drinking milk or juice in order to fulfill their appetite, further reinforcing the problem. These children are likely to be anxious and stressed and would tend to show a preference for high sugar foods or for foods that are high in carbohydrates.
Tantrum behavior and melt down behaviour usually occur when children are tired, hungry, or poorly regulated. When the child experiences poor sensory regulation, he feels completely overwhelmed by sensory input, and he cannot organize his thoughts, feelings and behavioural responses appropriately, and tantrum behaviour is often the most likely outcome. It is therefore important to take care to ensure that your child’s blood sugar levels remain stable, and that the child avoids foods that are high in sugar content. Ensure that as far as is possible, a balanced diet is offered. Fussy eaters should be encouraged to eat every three hours so as to avoid letting them become too hungry and to keep blood sugar more stable.
Organising sensory input, such as deep pressure and strong proprioceptive input can be most helpful. Proprioception refers to the compression in muscles and joints. Chewing on Theratubing, or Sensory Stuff’s medical grade Stretchy Tube, ARK range of products,  and on foods such as biltong or hard nuts and seeds, can all provide strong proprioceptive input to the teeth and jaw. The child needs to be involved in lots of activities, which involve pushing, pulling, and muscular work. These activities should take place throughout the day as part of a “sensory diet”. Organizing oral motor input can make a considerable difference to such children. Chewing and biting on gummy textures, such as the ARK grabbers, can offer particularly organizing oral input for fussy eaters. These grabbers made of rubbery, medical grade silicon, are very strong, and are easy for the child to grasp and to handle. Biting and chewing are activities that offer strong proprioceptive input. The Z-Grabber has a built-in vibrator and offers very organizing input for children who show an aversion to various food textures. The Z-grabber also has various tips, such as textured tips and spoon tips, which can be screwed into it. It is a most versatile tool for use by Speech Therapists in Feeding Therapy.

Encourage the child to bite and chew on textured and smooth grabbers, and offer firm, organizing massage with your fingertips, or with a Z-grabber, to the child’s cheeks and lips, as this can also be most helpful.
At mealtimes, offer a variety of small quantities of food for the child to take and to try. Ensure that those foods, which he does enjoy are also available, but avoid any unhealthy options. Do not fuss about the younger child who plays with his food. Also, let the child feed himself as far as is possible. Food is to be enjoyed! Keep mealtimes happy and ensure that everyone is calm and relaxed. Mealtimes should be a happy social occasion. Avoid insisting that your child eats. Do not ever force the child to eat. Rather, only provide healthy food options and wait for him to be hungry enough to want to eat. You could also try to eat in a more relaxed environment and take a picnic into the garden. Avoid eating in front of television.
Handling a Mealtime Meltdown

Should a mealtime melt-down occur, avoid trying to reason with your child. He is likely beyond making any sense of such reasoning. Also, avoid doing too much talking. It just creates noise clutter for the child. He is past listening when he is in tantrum mode! Instead, adopt a calm attitude and gently take control so that the child feels secure in the situation. Remind him that it’s all okay, and reassure him. Do not leave him on his own to get over the tantrum, but rather stay with your child until he calms down again. You may need to leave the table, but this is not ideal as the child may feel that he has won a food battle if you move away from the table. He is already overwhelmed and insecure about the situation. By leaving him, you simply reinforce any anxiety, which the child might be feeling. It is important that you as parent understand that when your child is upset, his thoughts and emotions make it difficult for him to reason in any logical way. Remember however, that it is the child’s job to get back in control and to get over his tantrum. The only thing he needs to do is to deal with his body and to get his sensory regulation under control. It may take a very long time the first few times. Stay with him until he is over his tantrum.

Does this mean that you are allowing the child to scream and shout? No. You are just quietly and calmly present with him. You are respectful of the fact that he is still growing, and that these things happen. You can gently reassure him by letting him know that you know that he can get over the tantrum himself. It is important that you understand that the child’s tantrum/meltdown is NOT about you, as the parent. As with all sensory meltdowns it is very important to give the job of overcoming the melt down to the child. It is his responsibility, not yours.

Only once he has settled again, you should begin to calmly discuss what happened. Validate the child’s feelings and talk about the feelings that the child had.