Pediatric feeding with empathy: 8 ways to think through a compassionate lens

Published by Marsha Dunn Klein, pediatric occupational therapist on Aug 17, 2023

On a vacation to Monterey, Mexico, I sat at a fancy restaurant and friends presented me with a plate of worms. Since I am a curious eater, and it was a delicacy, I cautiously took a bite.

At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of my feeding therapy clients. After decades as a pediatric occupational therapist, I wondered, “If somebody made you eat this, held your hands down while they put it in your mouth, or made you eat three bites of those worms before you could have your regular dinner, would that be fair?”

Understanding how children feel during mealtime is the pediatric feeding with empathy that I try to share in my teachings with parents and feeding therapists. Empathizing with why children struggle to eat or drink is key to setting clients up for a lifetime of better feeding. “We need to look deeper to find a compassionate lens. The foundation for supporting all areas of feeding therapy has to be fully cemented in an understanding of empathy, connection, safety, motivation, enjoyment and brain science.”

In a presentation at the International PFD Conference, I outlined eight mindset shifts to consider for a more empathetic approach to PFD feeding therapy.

pick highlighter marking the word "empathy" in a dictionary

Communicate the empathy circle

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s the ability to sense another’s emotion and imagine walking in their shoes. For children and their parents, pediatric feeding with empathy means seeing food as they see it and reflecting to them that they’ve been understood.

Communicating what might be going on for a parent or the child is called the empathy circle. We need to find empathy for the child and what they might be going through. And we need to help parents have empathy for their child and understand what might be going on for them.

Look beyond just calories during mealtime

Nourishing children needs to include more than focusing on calories. Having a child feel like a celebrated part of mealtime is essential to skill mastery. Food is nourishment, but it’s also a means of communication and socialization. It can be about giving and receiving love, celebration and family time. This is why mealtime is an important opportunity to develop strong parent-and-child relationships. We need to ensure we’re also nourishing little souls with pleasant, safe company.

Shifting adult and child roles during meals

The role of adults at mealtime is to decide the menu and provide a safe environment for learning. When children come to the table, it’s to be nourished and have energy for the day. That means some of the foods offered at that mealtime must be foods the child knows and will comfortably eat while they’re learning about other foods that the family and siblings are eating.

Many of us have approached feeding therapy as if it’s our job to “get food into kids.” However, it’s the child’s job to decide what and if they’re going to put food in their mouths, and our job is to offer a variety of foods to allow for opportunity and learning about foods so the child can discover what he LOVES.

Rethink exposure to new foods

In the past, exposure to new foods meant getting a child to put it in their mouth. In some cases, a child gets pushed past their sensory safety zone. Exposure done with pressure can decrease the enjoyment of eating, along with any benefits of that exposure.

Asking a child with PFD to try a mouthful may be way too big of an ask. A little taste, lick, touch or even seeing others enjoy a food can be considered an “exposure.” Instead of thinking of “exposure” where adults often ask (or demand) that children interact with that food in a certain way, can we think of “opportunity” where the child gets to explore the food and decide if or when ready to try it on their own.

family eating and sitting together at a table

Work with the whole family

Both parents and children bring their experiences to the table. A trusted connection with parents from infancy supports a child’s ability to self-regulate. Feeding therapists must be sure to support parents’ success. This means asking assessment questions that reflect what’s going on with a child and parent. It also means including parents in planning and solutions with questions like: Of all the things we did today or talked about today, what would you like to try this week?

Consider why a child says no

A child says no to food for a reason, such as:

  • They don’t feel well
  • The sensory challenge is too great
  • They have a difficult motor response to that food
  • They have poor regulation
  • They are too worried

Consider food refusal as communication. It invites us to be curious about what’s going on and how we can make that child feel more ready and safe for this mealtime interaction.

child playing with food, holding a piece of bread that has a smiley face cut out of it up to their face

Shift from food tolerance to enjoyment

Tolerance is the capacity to endure pain or hardship. But enjoyment means satisfaction, pleasure and gratification. Food constitutes not only the taste but also sensory aspects, socialization, experience and satiation. Many of us have used the word “tolerance” in our feeding goals. But if a child doesn’t like that food, why would we settle for “tolerance” when we could aim for “enjoyment?”

Pay attention to communication cues

Forcing a child to eat when the adult is the more powerful figure in the relationship could mean missing cues of a child’s sense of safety, worries and need to protect themselves. It’s easy to push into their stress and worry zone and then call food refusal a behavior problem. This can unintentionally teach a child to ignore their body and sensory cues.

When we allow children to tune in to the wisdom of their own bodies, we’re supporting safety. Children who experience safety with us as parents and therapists are better able to regulate themselves. Pediatric feeding with empathy means seeing them, hearing them, valuing them and understanding them, to climb into their skin and walk around in it.

Ultimately, eating is a learned behavior. How parents and children interact over mealtimes matters. This is why parents and feeding therapists must do what they can to create positive memories around eating, food and mealtimes.

View Marsha’s International Pediatric Feeding Disorder Conference Session: Shifting our Focus in Pediatric Feeding Towards a Compassionate Lens here

Marsha Dunn Klein has spent over five decades working in feeding therapy as an occupational therapist, author, inventor and co-founder of the Get Permission Institute. This article is based on a presentation from the 2023 Feeding Matters International Conference.

My Experience Researching PFD

Published by Michelle McKay on Aug 08, 2023

woman smiling, wearing glasses, a red cardigan, black shirt, and necklace

Hello! I’m Michelle, and I am thrilled to share where my inspiration for becoming a feeding therapist came from and introduce my newest research project. I have a full-circle story of how I ended up working in the field of pediatric feeding. I am so passionate about working with these clients and their families.

When I was a junior in high school, a friend asked if I could help her babysit for a family in my neighborhood. I became this child’s habilitation and respite provider and began attending their therapy sessions. I loved all of them, but was particularly intrigued by his feeding therapy sessions. I started helping with his home program, introducing new foods, playing with new foods, and working on feeding skills at home. I knew that was the space that I wanted to be in when I grew up, and I worked hard to graduate with my doctorate in occupational therapy in 2020.

During my capstone in my OT program, I began a small research study, studying the interventions I was observing in feeding therapy. Unfortunately, in the middle of this experience, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I was unable to get my study off the ground.

I have always been a question-asker and answer-seeker, looking to research and clinicians with more experience for advice and support for how to best help my clients and their families. Since graduate school, I have been interested in returning to my research question and helping feeding therapists provide the most evidence-based interventions to support our clients and their families.

As a therapist, I get my evidence and best-practice by learning from families, colleagues, and reading the most current research. However, with pediatric feeding disorder as a new diagnosis and feeding therapy as an emerging practice area, research on feeding therapy interventions is scarce. This is the gap I’m trying to address as I begin my journey into conducting research.

infographic about how to conduct a research study
  1. Formulate a question. What are common questions that you find yourself asking or that you are asked by families, other practitioners, or from people that you are mentoring? For me, I was often asking why are these the interventions that I keep coming back to. I ask myself daily how the strategies that I choose to use are helping my clients find success at mealtimes. I have asked the same questions of all of my mentors and frequently find caregivers or other health care providers asking the purpose of certain strategies that I bring to the table.
  2. What population/setting do you need? Could you answer your question using the data from your documentation? Do you need to study your clients or their caregivers or other clinicians? Where would you find data to support your research? Would you need to be in an outpatient clinic, a hospital or acute care setting, home health, school, etc.?
  3. Current project you can help with or start something new: Are there current research projects that are addressing your question or a question you’re interested in, or do you need to start your own? Start with a literature review to look for what’s been researched and where the gaps are. Contact organizations or communities that may be doing research (ie. Feeding Matters, Universities, etc.). Use social media to find others who are like-minded and connect with them. Don’t be afraid to send a DM or email to a researcher or clinician who you relate to who may be interested in helping with your idea.
  4. Resources: If you’ll be conducting research with human subjects, you will need an IRB. The best way to get an IRB is to connect with a university. Doctorate programs in the therapy fields are becoming more common and often have benefits for community research partners including access to student research teams, access to university libraries and libraries who can help with research design, and professors who may have similar interests or projects that you can model yours off of.
  5. Develop a plan. Through your literature search, determine which type of research fits your question and resources best. Will you be conducting qualitative or quantitative data? Do you have the resources and ability to pursue a randomized control trial, or would a pilot study or case study fit better? Take time to find the right research type for you. Use templates for research protocols, plans, and write-ups from the beginning that match your study type, especially if this is the first study you’re leading. During your literature review, look for strategies in their research protocols that you can model your procedures off of and save these ideas together to reference as you work on yours.

When ‘Expert’ Advice Is Unhelpful: A Guide to Avoiding Misleading Social Media Advice on PFD

Published by Feeding Matters on Jul 17, 2023

The pitfalls of unhelpful and misleading social media advice for clinicians and caregivers and how to avoid them

Whether you’re a clinician or a caregiver, unhelpful and inaccurate content is a common pitfall for anyone following feeding therapy accounts on social media. Here’s an example that speech therapist Bri Miluk, MS, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC, owner of Pediatric Feeding Therapy, sees often.

woman on phoneA therapist with a few years of experience shares a Reel highlighting the “dangers” of using a sippy cup. With a flashy video and a viral song, the account owner warns the audience of all the negative ways a sippy cup can affect speech, feeding, swallowing and sleep. Then, instead of sippy cups, the post recommends a special straw or open cup. The author shares a link to where you can buy it and the hashtag “#ad” as well.

Not only is the information, at best, misleading, and, at worst, entirely inaccurate, but it also violates Federal Trade Commision (FTC) rules for advertising.

Miluk, who is pursuing a PhD in communication and information sciences through the University of Alabama, explains, “This kind of content uses fear-mongering to convince people to avoid something based on baseless claims.” Pointing out that there’s no evidence to show that a child using a sippy cup is going to have sleep, airway, feeding or speech difficulties, she goes on to say, “A sippy cup uses similar oral motor patterns as sucking on a pacifier, thumb or bottle, but we know that frequency and duration matter. A child doesn’t have a sippy cup in their mouth all day long.”

Social media is a powerful tool for education and community among caregivers and clinicians alike. But the onus is on the user to ensure the information obtained there is accurate and helpful.

Healthcare misinformation mixed with fear-mongering on social media makes a recipe for disaster

Richard Noel, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Duke Health, has treated hundreds of patients with pediatric feeding disorder (PFD) and other pediatric GI issues. One problem he hears from caregivers gathering PFD information from social media is that content typically features only one perspective. “On social media, you only see the numerator but never see the denominator. You’re not told about when an approach fails. They always generally talk about their successes.”

When information is shared as a general recommendation, it can be particularly challenging. “Pediatric feeding disorder can have many different forms and severities. What works for one person may not work for another,” says Dr. Noel.

Knowing that social media can be full of inaccurate information and even fear-mongering has led clinicians like Miluk to spend time creating social media educational content. Miluk has built up an audience of over 24K on Instagram with content to educate clinicians about feeding therapy. Caregivers also follow her for tips, and Miluk is especially driven to dispel myths for both audiences.

Here’s a great example of how Miluk does this:

Clinicians need to gauge content on misleading social media advice

Even clinicians and students pursuing a therapy degree can fall prey to misinformation on social media. Miluk started sharing social media content, primarily on Instagram, after seeing other speech therapists promote inaccurate or misleading content. She started in 2020 by sharing evidence-based content on pediatric feeding. That evolved to trying to support clinicians and caregivers to better understand dark marketing and how misinformation is shared online. According to Business Review at Berkeley, dark marketing is highly targeted advertising that “causes the audience to think about the product more subtly.”

TikTok posts and Instagram Reels from influencers promoting a product take dark marketing to a new level. “Some of these sources are selling a method or a booklet, and you’re getting advertising disguised as a documentary,” warns Dr. Noel.

Because dark marketing is so pervasive on social media, Miluk teaches her students in university courses and clinicians online how to spot it.

“The better understanding we have of how to be informed consumers ultimately leads to better patient care,” she says.

Judging the accuracy of information on social media

visual description of what CRAAP stands for

When using social media to view healthcare information, one tool Miluk recommends considering is the aptly-named CRAAP test.

CRAAP stands for currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy and purpose. Miluk explains each letter of the acronym as follows:

Currency: Is the information timely or is it outdated?

Relevancy: Is the information relevant to you?

Authority: Who is the source of the information?

Accuracy: Is this information supported by scientific evidence?

Purpose: What is the reason this information exists? Is it to inform? Is it to sell? Is it to teach? Is it to entertain? Is it to persuade?

Best practices for clinicians using social media for pediatric feeding disorder information

Miluk and Dr. Noel recommend the following ways to access informative PFD content on social media without being misled.

Just because it’s a common refrain doesn’t make it gospel

One of Miluk’s favorite podcasts, Duped by Dr. Michelle Mazur and Maggie Patterson, has a quote she repeats often: Just because you hear something frequently doesn’t mean it’s true.

“Because of cognitive biases, when we see something repeatedly, it’s natural for our brains to believe it to be true. In reality, that doesn’t mean truthfulness,” says Miluk.

Make your intentions clear

For clinicians who promote products on social media, you need to disclose any affiliations in the post. This can’t be simply including #ad. You must clearly state that you may receive a commission on qualifying purchases. “It’s something that I wish would be normalized. An affiliation is not something to be embarrassed about. People have a right to know if you have a potential bias for something when you’re earning a profit, no matter how small,” says Miluk.

Clear disclosure on posts is required by social media channels themselves, as well as the Federal Trade Commission.

Unfollow toxic accounts

For those clinicians and caregivers who actively share on social media, one of the biggest challenges is the ability to hide behind a screen. This can create divisiveness and even be shame-inducing. “If you put something on a public forum, you should expect public replies and even public criticism, but that doesn’t mean we should be disrespectful,” Miluk says.

Miluk recommends treating your social media like your digital home. “If I wouldn’t allow someone to walk through my door and talk to me like that. Then they’re not welcome here, either.”

Advice for parents and caregivers

Caregivers should be wary of social media before adopting a new method or following advice to support children with PFD. Dr. Noel recommends the following tips:

Use your therapy provider as a sounding board

When you find new health information, bring it to your therapy provider before investing time or money into a specific method, book or video series. “You see something new on social media that looks amazing and promises to help 10 out of 10 kids with a feeding disorder. If you run it by your therapy provider, they might point out it’s not new. It works for some, but it doesn’t work for all. That’s how you get better, more realistic information for your child,” he says.

Seek information and support from advocacy organizations

Dr. Noel is a fan of and a critical professional leader for advocacy organizations like Feeding Matters. He says, as a physician, there are many questions he can’t answer because he doesn’t live with the disorder his patients’ families confront every day. Having a peer referral source is crucial. “These advocacy organizations are incredibly valuable to provide for patients’ needs that are way beyond what I do in medicine,” he says.

Technology today is moving faster than your finger can drag down to refresh. Access to this information overload is only as beneficial as the receiver’s level of skepticism. Miluk’s most important advice for using social media to find support for PFD or any other health issue is to slow down. “You have to slow down your thinking and be willing to appraise the information before feeding education on social media can be effective.”

Click here to read a blog by Miluk on why she recommends clinicians attend Feeding Matter’s annual PFD conference.