Feeding difficulties are common in 5% to 20% of typical developing children, and between 40% and 80% of children with disabilities. These difficulties vary between structural abnormalities to behavioural contributions.
Feeding difficulties include picky eating, food fussiness, food refusal, food neophobia, restricted variety of foods, food fads, limited excessive or variable appetite, prolonged mealtimes and disruptive mealtime behaviours.
Growing up, we hear and are taught about many different rules and behaviours which are associated with mealtimes. The following are 10 feeding myths which many of us have probably heard or believed; and why they are in fact a myth.
Real Examples of Feeding Myths
1. Eating is the body’s number 1 priority.
The body’s number 1 priority is breathing followed by postural stability and then eating. If you are not breathing or stable within your seat, your energy is going to go into fixing these factors before successful feeding can occur.
2. Eating is instinctive.
Eating is only an instinctive drive for the first month of life. We are born with reflexes which help us eat. Once these reflexes vanish at about 5-6 months, eating is a learned behaviour which we mimic through repetitive observations of those around us.
3. Eating is easy.
For most people eating is something we do not really think about. We chew, swallow and then we are done. However, eating requires 26 muscles and 6 cranial nerves working together. Every single mouthful you have, your body is working extremely hard to chew the food and protect your airways. Additionally, eating is the only task that children do which requires simultaneous coordination of all 8 sensory systems (touch, smell, hearing, sight, taste, proprioception, vestibular and interoception).
4. Eating is a two-step process
It is easy to think that eating is 2 step process- (1) you sit down, (2) you eat. Done. However, there is 32 steps to eating. Before eating the food (swallowing), a child needs to be able to tolerate the food, interact with the food, smell the food, touch the food, taste the food and then finally eat the food (hooray!). Within these categories, there are numerous steps which make up the whole 32 steps.
5. It is not appropriate to touch or play with food.
It cannot be stressed enough that wearing your food is part of the normal feeding developmental process. By playing with their food, it is allowing your child to learn about the food before it even gets to their mouth. This encourages children to try new foods and self-feed. It also enhances their brain development since children learn by discovering things through sensory play.
6. If a child is hungry enough, he/she will eat. They will not starve themselves.
This is mostly true. About 94-96% of the paediatric population will eat if they’re hungry enough. However, that remaining 4-6% of the population who have feeding difficulties, will starve themselves- not on purpose though. For that remaining 4-6% eating does not work and/or it hurts, and no amount of hunger is going to overcome that. Children are organised simply; if it hurts, don’t do it. Would you blame them though? Most adults would not want to do things if they knew that it was going to hurt. Children will often eat enough for the hunger pain to go away, but not enough for the body to get the calories it requires.
7. Children only need to eat 3 times a day.
Surprisingly, children require five to six meals a day, which equates to a small meal approximately every 2-3 hours. This ensures that they get enough calories for proper growth and development. In fact, if children ate 3 meals a day, they would need to eat full adult sized meals to get the amount of calories they require in a day.
8. If a child won’t eat, it is either a behavioural or organic problem.
Most of the time (65-95%) it is a combination of both behavioural and organic problems. If you start with an organic problem (structural abnormalities), this can cause a behavioural issue and vice versa.
9. Certain foods are only for certain times of the day.
Food is food. It is not a particular mealtime food, such as breakfast food. Food is either a protein, a carbohydrate or a fruit/vegetable. It is not healthy to teach your children that some foods have more nutritional values than others, or that there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. If a child prefers pasta at breakfast, then that is okay. Nutrients and calories are still going in- something is better than nothing.
10. Mealtimes are serious. Children are to be seen, not heard.
Mealtimes should be fun! Mealtimes are a teaching opportunity and parents are the teachers. Children eat better and are more engaged when the mealtime is interesting and interactive. They also eat better when mealtime conversations are focused on talking about the food, and when adults are modelling how to eat and teaching the ‘physics’ of food. For example: “That’s a strawberry, doesn’t it look different with the seeds on the outside… do you think its sweet or sour?” Be noisy, be messy and play with your food!!
Feeding difficulties are common in children of all ages, with various causes. Children learn feeding behaviours from their parents. Because of this it is important that we highlight the feeding myths we are taught when we were growing up.
What to do now
If your child is struggling with mealtime or has a restrictive diet, give us a call at Generation Physio, we have a friendly team of professionals that are dedicated to changing the lives of our clients. All of our clinicians are mobile and come to your own home to conduct an examination. Give us a call on 1300 122 884 to book a consultation today.
Article Written By Kayla Hilt
Throughout clinical placements Kayla gained experience working with speech, language, fluency, voice, swallowing/feeding and multimodal communication; within both the paediatric and adult settings.
She loves to work with people across a broad range of ages and presentation, with a special interest in the field of swallowing/feeding. Her greatest strength as a clinician is her driven and determined personality, along with her passion for helping her clients.
Learn more about Kayla here.