Many parents feel responsible for teaching their child how to chew, drink or swallow. While adults are partners in the process, learning to eat is a very basic program that is scripted for each of us in early development. Even kids who have motor or cognitive challenges have the ability to learn new things with experience, especially if they are driving the process. That is important because many families feel tempted (or even required!) to do things that sacrifice their child’s control over their own body, hoping to make them more successful or efficient. It is also important because most kids with feeding challenges or tube dependency are extremely independent and don’t really want that help anyway, even if their skills aren’t up to the job.
So how does that work? Remember that almost everyone learns to eat without being taught. There are some reflexes that start the process as infants, but the rest of the skills are acquired and integrated as babies grow and mature into toddlers and young children. Watching and beginning to participate in mealtimes allows them to become interested in what the people around them are eating. They reach for things or accept foods that are provided for them by spoon, cup or as table foods. Through trial and error, their mouth and hand skills become more proficient and effective for the foods they try. We all have a feedback loop that process information such as “too much,” “not enough” “too big”, “too small,”” too slimy,” “yummy!,”” ew…never again,” “wow, how do I do THAT again?!”
Those past experiences inform future attempts and we become better and better at predicting and adapting more efficiently. In addition to hunger, the desire to be social, explore, and enjoy positive experiences are the natural motivators that drive the repeated attempts, but the learning itself happens by building on what worked or didn’t work well in the past. Because this is an internal process, too many or poorly timed attempts to help can actually interfere with the learning that needs to happen for children to be independent and efficient. It prevents children from processing their own body experiences and solving problems in a way that works for them. It can increase fear and pressure to perform, or to do things that don’t feel comfortable in order to please or obey. It can even prevent them from trying anything at all, if that is the only way to protest.
Adults still play a role in the learning, but as a responsive partner, not a teacher. Instead of trying to force the learning to happen your way, try these strategies instead. (Notice which ones are YOU-directed, and which ones require you to respond to their cues instead of leading the way.)
Observe – Watch their choices to see what is interesting to them and what seems to feel safe.
Provide foods, liquids or utensils based on their interest. As they gain confidence and competence, you can respond by providing things that will help them move one step up safely. Pro tip – Don’t get stuck on foods or utensils in the baby aisle. There are many things that are appropriate and safe in all of the sections of the store. Think about what you use and what you eat because those are likely to be the most interesting to them.
Provide space for them to explore. Children learn from experience, not instruction. Eat your own food, look out the window, or talk to others at the table rather than trying to guide and show. If you need to, walk away to give them room to play. At every stage, they are likely to need to experiment with new textures, utensils or flavors, so don’t be discouraged if progress isn’t as “linear” as you want it to be!
Accept that your child may want to do it themselves many times, even if it isn’t successful. Utensils and cups are very common battlegrounds for independence. Some kids need to spill or drop food on themselves over and over, but each time they make tiny tweaks to inch towards mastery.
Allow them to guide their own learning. You can’t possibly know if they are processing and applying information on how to tilt the cup or curve their lips or cup their tongue in response to the spoon or the food, but they do. Too much interference prohibits them from gaining the information they are seeking with the repeated attempts.
Modify activities to allow both independence and success by changing what you provide. Small changes may be enough. For example, if they really want to be independent with an open cup, use a small one that won’t break and add only a little water. Safety note – it is always ok to stop activities that are unsafe. Choking hazards, sharp utensils, and things that break should always be out of reach or (even better!), out of sight and out of temptation.
Support – Some kids do need extra support BUT assume competence first and let them communicate when and how to provide help. Timing of support is harder to gauge in children who are non-verbal or who have motor or cognitive delays but is even more crucial. They are already at risk for compromised autonomy because they can’t be independent for many tasks of daily living. Do everything you can to provide them with the opportunity to direct that support. That may mean waiting for them to start the movement or watching for pauses or eye gaze as requests for help before bringing the next bite or sip to their mouth.
Experience what they do – It may be invaluable to experience having someone feed you so you know how they feel. If you are brave, accept the bites blindfolded, it makes it harder for you to anticipate what is coming and direct the experience.
Be Patient – An independent learner may be messier, slower and have more stops and starts than you want, but that time, mess and trial and error are what make them successful in the long run!