How do you tell the difference between a picky eater and a child who needs feeding therapy?

We asked Le Bonheur Speech Language Pathologist Amy Claire Petro, MS, CCC-SLP, when parents should seek help for their child’s eating habits. Here’s what she said:

Many parents express concern about their child’s eating habits. Some may say, “My child is a picky eater because he refuses to eat vegetables.” Others may say, “My child loves eating fruits, but she just won’t eat meat.”

These picky eaters will usually gradually expand their food preferences. Food jags are common in toddlers; however, if your child continues to limit the foods he will eat, he may need feeding therapy.

Children who need feeding therapy will continue to narrow their acceptance of different foods. The problem only gets worse. For instance he may start out eating pretty much anything; then, he’ll begin refusing those once-loved foods until he will only eat a handful of things.

Often times children will show refusal behaviors such as head turning, gagging and unwillingness to touch certain textures. These children are not just picky eaters; they may need feeding therapy to learn to accept a variety of foods.

If you notice overall mood change and anxiety during meal times, it may be beneficial to discuss these behaviors with your child’s primary care physician at which point a referral may be made for either a speech language pathologist or an occupational therapist to complete a feeding assessment. Occupational therapists address sensory issues, as well as grasp (for hand-to-mouth motion) that is associated with feeding. Speech language pathologists address the acceptance of the food into the mouth and swallowing.