An interview with co-authors of the newly released book “Sense-ational Mealtimes” Denise Stapleton, PhD, Accredited Practicing Dietitian & Gillian Griffiths, Occupational Therapist.**

Mealtime should be enjoyable, yet some children struggle,and their families struggle.  Mealtimes for some families are fraught with ongoing grimacing, gagging, distress, anxiety, worry, frustration and anger. Do these phrases sound familiar?  “He won’t try new foods”. “She won’t try new textures”. “He spits food out of his mouth”.

Mealtime problems can be a common toddler trait. However, they might be more common in children with FPIES due to negative, even traumatic, past experiences with food. It makes us wonder: how do you know when it’s more than just a fussy phase and is it going to get worse if you don’t do something about it?

What causes mealtime difficulties?

There is a long list of things that can trigger eating to be tricky.  For example; premature or complicated birth, early hospitalization, medical or developmental conditions, pain, trauma, excessive stress, reflux, vomiting, ear, throat or chest infections, allergies, intolerance’s, and constipation are some of the conditions that can contribute to complex mealtimes. FPIES can interrupt and delay the process of introducing solids to an infant and can complicate a toddler’s progress with textures. Post-natal depression, anxiety and stress can also make mealtimes tricky for some families.

What can we do about mealtime difficulties?

After attending to medical needs, one of the key areas to explore in order to create enjoyable mealtimes is your own and your child’s sensory preferences.  Our sensory preferences influence what we notice, tolerate, seek, avoid and are distracted or distressed by.  Understanding preferred sensory properties of food and mealtimes might be a key.

What are sensory preferences?

Sensory preferences are the sights, sounds, and types of touch, smells, tastes, temperatures, textures and types of movement we prefer in our day.

Sensory preferences are unique to each individual as they are based on: sensory thresholds in the brain; genetics; the surrounding environment; feelings; interactions and experiences during each day and across a lifetime (ie memories). On top of this, pain, stress, trauma, fatigue, reflux, vomiting, infections, allergies, intolerance’s and constipation may make a parent or a child more or less sensitive.

Discovering sensory preferences takes time as we may have a different threshold for each sense and the amount of sensory information we avoid, tolerate or seek more of can change during the day.  At times, parents can also project their own sensory preferences onto to their children.

How do sensory preferences affect mealtime behavior?

During mealtimes we use EVERY sense to help us notice, interact, socialize; and to eat, to use utensils and to be seated (or not).  We continually use our senses to gather sensory information from our surroundings and our body in order to ensure our mealtimes are emotionally safe, successful and enjoyable.

Our sensory preferences directly influence our thoughts, feelings, memories, interactions with others and our behavior.  If our brain detects or remembers an experience that feels unsafe, worrisome or dangerous, our body might experience a Danger Center Response (fight, flight, freeze or fright).  These strong feelings might be associated with the sensory properties of certain foods, the surroundings or interactions and can have a very large impact on mealtime behavior.

Exercise: Can you remember eating a food that caused you to feel unwell or vomit?  Can you tolerate the smell, sight, taste or texture of that food now?  How does it make you feel?  What would you do if you were forced to eat even just a little bit? How would you behave?

What we and our children experience can affect our thoughts and how we feel, and these can affect our behavior. Similarly, our behavior affects how we feel and our feelings can make us more or less sensitive to certain stimuli. As we explore in the book, it is so helpful for parents to always tune in and wonder what might have caused a child’s behavior. Ask yourself, how were they feeling, how were you feeling, what might have affected those feelings? This wondering can help us identify and do something about the potential triggers to alleviate or prevent the undesirable behavior.

How can I help my child feel safe at snack and mealtimes?

You can support your child’s ability to stay calm by taking time to “SENSE-itively” tune in to his or her cues. When you tune in to your child’s sensory preferences, you can create a ‘just right’ experience that will feel emotionally safe for everyone and hopefully bring pleasure.  Ongoing pleasurable mealtimes can positively shape a child’s mealtime behavior and the types or range of food he will eat.

The authors acknowledge typical strategies may not have been successful for many families with ongoing mealtime difficulties. The book reinforces:

  1. That each child is incredibly unique,
  2. Parents are the experts in relation to their child; and
  3. With the new understandings that the book brings, parents are enabled to develop unique ‘just right’ strategies for their child, with the help of a supportive clinician if needed.

The authors are at the forefront of applying all the evidence in sensory processing across a lifetime. This enhances our understandings of mealtime difficulties. SENSE-ational Mealtimes is the first to enhance caregivers’ capacity for reflective functioning through the understandings about sensory preferences. The following article provides preliminary research results that strongly support the need for further research in this area. Families found the understandings in the book are a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle about mealtime difficulties: “Development and evaluation of SENSE-ational Mealtimes: a book for families with mealtime difficulties” (2013) by Denise Stapleton, Gillian Griffiths and Jill Sherriff. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education.

If your child is displaying sensory preferences and needs help, discuss this with your child’s Pediatrician, Dietitian or Therapists.   This article highlights one resource for navigating feeding issues related to sensory preferences. If you are looking to learn even more, here are some additional resources:

  1. Living Sensationally (2008) by Winnie Dunn (occupational therapist) which explains what it means to have sensation everywhere given that people are sensory beings and the world is a sensory place
  2. Just Take a Bite by Lori Ernsberger & Tania Stegen-Hanson
  3. Feeding Challenges in Young Children: Strategies and Specialized Interventions for Success Paperback by Deborah Bruns Ph.D.Stacy Thompson Ph.D.
  4. Baby Sense (2007) by Megan Faure (occupational therapist) and Ann Richardson (nurse and midwife) helps parents understand their infant’s sensory experiences.

**Denise Stapleton is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian with many years experience inPediatric nutrition and research. She passionately supports families with varying mealtime difficulties and therapeutic dietary needs as a private practitioner, senior community Dietitian, researcher, author and mentor. Gillian Griffiths an Occupational Therapist with extensive training in Sensory Processing and is co-director of Engaging Your Senses, providers of professional development. Denise and Gillian recently published the go-to parent guide book SENSE-ationalMealtimes and Facebook page.

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