In the last post I wrote about getting kids to eat healthy foods. This obviously becomes a whole lot trickier when it comes to children with special needs. In fact, it can be challenging to get them to eat anything at all.
Kids with special needs may experience delayed physical development. This can result in gastrointestinal issues such as constipation, diarrhoea or limited kidney function. Inadequate motor skills (i.e. limited muscle movement) or poor hand-eye co-ordination mean chewing, swallowing, using utensils or drinking without spillage can all be problematic. Senses such as smell and taste which stimulate the desire to eat, might also be restricted.
Intellectual development might also be delayed or limited in children with special needs. This makes learning and social interactions difficult, particularly when it comes to understanding the routine and social norms associated with mealtimes. Impaired language skills might also mean kids can’t verbally accept or reject new foods, making it difficult to know exactly why they do or don’t like what they’ve just eaten.
Don’t despair. Feeding kids with special needs won’t always be stress-free, but there are some practical measures you can put in place that will make things easier.
Choose the Right Tools
This might be stating the obvious, but appropriate sturdy cutlery, crockery that helps prevent spillage, cups with handles and drinking straws will help kids with delayed motor skills to feed themselves.
Watch the Texture, Temperature and Water Intake
It goes without saying that if a child has trouble chewing and swallowing, then naturally smoother foods such as custard, soup or smoothies or food that has been pureed or mashed is the way to go. But ‘smooth food’ has an added benefit – it contains no lumps, which means there are no surprises. Kids don’t like surprises when it comes to food, so providing them with something that is familiar will help them eat more easily. Just make sure you’re providing enough variety – for example, mash pumpkin with cannellini beans or puree fruit with iron-fortified cereal – to ensure your child is getting diet balanced in protein, iron and unprocessed carbohydrates.
If your child has a restricted sense of taste or smell, make sure their food isn’t too bland. This is a tricky balancing act, as you don’t want to upset the familiarity apple cart. Additionally, make sure hot food isn’t too hot, as kids mouths are generally more sensitive than those of adults.
Finally, if your child suffers from gastrointestinal issues, water is key. Make sure they remain well hydrated at all times.
Get Them Involved and Provide Routine
As stated, kids respond to familiarity. Therefore, providing a regular mealtime routine is important – eating at the same table, at the same time, with generally the same people each day. Healthy kids learn to associate food with their usual food environment from an early age and will start eating more easily when placed in that environment. For kids with intellectual disabilities, this learning process is likely to take a little longer, so getting them involved in setting the table and even helping to prepare the meal if appropriate may assist.
Set the Example
Again, it probably goes without saying, but setting a good example for your child goes a long way. Use positive reinforcement for good behaviour. Eat a variety of foods and show you enjoy doing so, as they are likely to copy what you do. Be present and attentive at the dinner table, making sure your child sits up when eating to avoid choking or other accidents.
And finally… try to remain calm and be patient.
Note: The content of this post is for general informational purposes only. Each special needs child is different. Therefore for specific nutritional advice related to your child, please consult a qualified professional directly.
This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Tiny Wings magazine…