As a feeding therapist, I always thought that I was being helpful when I “coached” children through their bites, cheered, and “whoo hoo-ed!” for all their eating attempts. I also observed well-meaning parents, grandparents and caregivers cheer, clap, and praise any attempts at eating, but we often did not see a consistent increase in eating as a result.
Children that have little or negative experiences with food have limited experience with the smells, tastes, and textures of foods, and any new sensation or movement can make them even more anxious. Attempts to “help,” can actually bring so much pressure to the situation that they have difficulty participating. What adults may view as positive reinforcement, may actually sound like “noise” to a child in an already challenging situation.
Natural reinforcers for eating are satiation of hunger, enjoyment of tastes and textures, and socializing in a relaxed and supportive environment. Mealtimes are naturally meant to be social. Nevertheless, the social interaction during mealtimes in families with a child with feeding challenges often becomes unnatural, scripted, and clinical.
Here are a few suggestions on what to do in place of praise during mealtimes:
- Remember to talk about things other than food and feeding at meal times. Check out the Family Dinner Project website for some great conversation starters!
- Reduce the number of questions you are asking your child. Mealtimes should not feel like an interrogation. Imagine a waiter standing over your table asking a bunch of happy questions as you are trying to eat. No matter how good the food is, the questioning would likely ruin your appetite.
- When chatting with your child at mealtimes, be yourself, and think about how you interact with your child when it isn’t a mealtime.
- Read your child’s cues. If they are telling you they don’t want the spoon, honor it. Take a pause and set it down nearby. This gives the child the sense of security that comes with feeling understood and the space to initiate when the child is ready.
- Enjoyment is the name of the game. Children that feel safe and relaxed at the table are more likely to develop healthy eating skills and try again at future sittings. Quality leads to quantity.
- Sometimes, when safe, it is helpful to have a midday “snack” period where your little one is allowed to play with foods without obviously being watched. Playing with their food is crucial for development and building trust during mealtimes.
- Everything in moderation: Be careful not to give extra attention or praise to food, but also remember to praise the non-feeding accomplishments of your child. For example, “I love how your sitting” or “Thank you for listening!”
Stay tuned for our post next week on why playing with food is so important!
By: Heidi Liefer Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BRS-S, CLC