Babies are born hungry - but sometimes they have a little trouble learning to eat and swallow correctly. If your baby is having trouble with breast or bottle feeding, or as you introduce solid foods, if your baby seems to be a picky eater, a speech language pathologist or occupational therapist can help teach your baby how to eat better.
Kimberly Hirte, MA, CCC-SLP, pediatric speech language pathologist at Primary Children’s Rehabilitation Services at Intermountain Riverton Hospital in Utah recommends parents be aware of these symptoms:
Signs your baby may not be eating properly
- Is not gaining weight or growing
- Refuses to eat or drink
- Spits up or throws up a lot
- Cries or fusses, or arches her back when feeding
- Has trouble breathing while eating or drinking
- Has problems chewing or coughs or gags during meals
- Has a gurgle or breathy or hoarse voice during or after meals
When should you see a doctor or therapist about feeding problems?
”If your child has one of these symptoms or your child is only eating 5-10 different foods, is gagging or unable to transition to different textures of food, or mealtime is overly stressful, I would suggest a visit to a feeding therapist,” adds Hirte.
Conditions that may lead to feeding and swallowing disorders
- Being premature or having a low birth weight
- Reflux or other stomach problems
- Breathing problems such as asthma
- Cleft lip or palate
- Muscle weakness in the face and neck
- Medicines that make her sleepy or not hungry
- Autism or sensory issues
- Diagnoses like cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, Down’s Syndrome, meningitis
How speech therapists can help babies with feeding disorders:
”Pediatric feeding therapists are specially trained to help assess your child’s chewing skills and if they are moving their tongue correctly,” says Hirte. We can teach them to strengthen the muscles in their mouth and help them move their tongue effectively.”
Therapists can help babies improve their ability to suck from a bottle or drink from a cup and coordinate breathing while eating. They can help older babies learn to chew properly and feed themselves.
“Some babies may have an aversion to certain textures of food. Therapists can help to make feeding time more enjoyable by changing food textures, liquid thickness, feeding positions or methods and can also offer suggestions to improve behavior during eating,” adds Hirte.
A speech or occupational therapist can evaluate your baby to find out what may be causing these issues and recommend treatment or therapy and help your baby enjoy meal time. There are therapists who see babies with feeding challenges at the Riverton Hospital Primary Children’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Clinic and other Intermountain clinics in Layton, Bountiful, Taylorsville, Riverton and Murray, UT.
What parents can do at home to help mealtime be less stressful
- Be positive, fun and creative.
- Offer your child a variety of colorful, age-appropriate, healthy food.
- Model good eating behavior: eat vegetables yourself, don’t eat while watching TV.
- Have a consistent mealtime routine.
- If your child doesn’t like a food, offer it another day. It may take several tries.
- Don’t force your child to eat or make them sit for long periods until they eat something.
- If you have a family history of food allergies, talk to your pediatrician before introducing foods that contain common allergens like milk, eggs, peanuts or gluten.
Tips for picky eaters
- Present food in a variety of ways. Try new containers, cups, utensils, tooth picks or even a muffin tin with several choices.
- Offer healthy foods with something fun to dip it in to encourage a variety of colors, textures and flavors. Some dip ideas are ranch salad dressing, hummus, nut butters or chocolate hazelnut spread.
- Cut food in shapes, use cookie cutters or arrange food in a shape.
- Let your child feed themselves. It will be messy!
- Encourage positive interactions with food using the five senses: seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting and even hearing the sound of crunchier foods can help them enjoy eating.
- Offer targeted, healthy choices: do you want your sandwich cut in squares or triangles? Do you want sweet potatoes or peas?