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.
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.
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.
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.