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Oral Input Dysfunction in Children

As a mom dealing with a son with ADD, and who displays symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder, I feel it important to share this information with others. I urge you to take some time to research the topic, and therefore make an informed decision as to how to best deal with your child. (Article contributed by Louise Freeman)

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder may become uncomfortable or even experience pain when dealing with sensations that others find pleasant. This is a functional disorder. It is most definitely not the child’s fault, nor can he / she control the problem.

I will briefly mention some of the various kinds of SPD your child may battle with. In the case of my son, he has mild symptoms of all. Your child may experience severe symptoms in one category – all children are different. The information I am sharing may not be used as a means of diagnosing your child. I suggest that you consult with an Occupational Therapist if you suspect your child may have SPD, who will be able to diagnose conclusively.

  • Tactile Dysfunction - certain textures and physical touch may cause discomfort.
  • Vestibular Dysfunction – relates to movement.
  • Auditory Dysfunction – relates to sound.
  • Olfactory Dysfunction – relates to smells.
  • Visual Dysfunction – relates to sights.
  • Oral Input Dysfunction – relates to the mouth, tastes, textures etc.

I would most like to focus on Oral Input Dysfunction this time around.

When dealing with Oral Input Dysfunction, many children go undiagnosed and struggle their way through mealtimes and dentist visits. Parents label their children “disobedient” or “fussy eaters” without ever realising what their children are experiencing.

A child with Oral Input Dysfunction may:

  • gag easily when eating
  • often request a drink with their meal
  • chew meat for ages, and then remove the leftover “chewy bits”
  • gag easily at the dentist
  • dislike having teeth brushed or their face washed
  • have a limited food repertoire - I have often heard parents say “My child only eats such and such.’
  • take their food off the fork with their teeth, keeping their lips detracted
  • become anxious at mealtimes
  • or may chew on items close by often – sucker sticks, pens, etc.
  • be sensitive to hairs in the mouth, or may even gag (especially at hair cutting time)

Never force a child who is displaying fear or anxiety to participate in activities or eat his food.  I cringe when I hear people say “my child may not leave the table until her plate is clean’ or “If he won’t eat his food I give him a hiding”. We are creating fears around food that may manifest in emotional and eating disorders. There are so many positive ways to work around this, some of which I can list for you.

If your child is a fussy eater, and does not have symptoms of Oral Input Dysfunction, these tips may still be useful.

  • Once you have found a food that your child likes, try foods with a similar taste and / or texture.
  • Provide distractions while eating e.g. Stories, poems, pictures, songs, relaxing music, or a toy to squeeze in one hand.
  • You could play a game with your child that “progresses” after each bite e.g. Snakes and ladders.
  • Give free reign of the condiments. If your child is eating food smothered in tomato sauce or mayonnaise – they are eating! You can slowly wean children off of condiments at any time.
  • Create a reward system – I like a chart with stars and stickers. A certain amount of stars after completing an entire meal, so many stars for trying a new food etc. Find a reward system that works for you and your child.
  • Make a poster for the fridge. Stick pictures or write down (depending on your child’s age) when you’ve discovered a new food that he / she likes. Don’t list the ones that aren’t welcome on the plate – once again maintain a positive approach.
  • Try new foods when your child is hungry – before a meal. Have firm favourites prepared in case.
  • Offer your child choices whenever possible – putting two new foods on the plate at once gives the child a better chance of managing. Let your child know that they only need to try the food.
  • Pay attention to what you are giving your child – take note of temperature – hot, cold or neutral. Also notice textures – pureed, smooth, chunky, hard, soft, crunchy, slippery, sticky or mixed.
  • Invest in a food processor if your child is more comfortable with pureed or soft foods. The time is worth the results.
  • When brushing teeth – brush your child’s tongue and cheeks with just water. Then brush teeth normally. Desensitising the mouth is particularly important.
  • Praise your child when they manage a new food, or brush their teeth without tears. Positive reinforcement is so important.
  • Give your child half an ice lolly just before trying new foods – this will “numb” and desensitise their mouth.
  • Try giving your child a Kiddo Safety Finger Toothbrush ten minutes before mealtimes. It will desensitise the mouth, and clean their palate, tongue and teeth at the same time. The Kiddo is made soft, with a gentle massage effect.
  • Ensure that your child is sitting up straight at mealtimes, preferably at a table.

Some fun things to do that may assist you:

  • Make food into toys or animals. There are so many cute things to do with food. I plan to make a recipe book with my son (who is 10 years old). We make mashed potato and fish fingers into porcupines, meatballs and pumpkin into a big teddy in the middle of his plate etc.
  • Make some edible play dough with:
1 and a half cups peanut butter
2 cups icing sugar
1 and a half cups honey or syrup
2 cups powdered milk
Chocolate chips (optional)
Mix all ingredients together, or keep the chocolate chips out for your child to decorate with. You can divide the dough, pack into jiffy bags and refrigerate. You can also halve this recipe. Let your child wash hands, play with the play dough, and eat it after!
  • Use straws to play cotton ball soccer. Make teams and use your straws to blow a cotton ball across the room. This is great for their sensory development.
Encourage your child to cook with you whenever possible. If they see the work and love that goes into preparing a meal, they can appreciate their food more. I also can’t say that I know any child who won’t want to taste what they’ve made!

Article contributed by Louise Freeman of Snappi Holdings.

Snappi manufactures and distributes several wonderful baby products, as well as Snappi Healing Balm - which is a fantastic all round skin balm Bumbo Baby Sitter and Bumbo Play tray, Snappi Steribottle, Snappi Healing Balm, Snappi Sanitising Spray Gel, Baby Nursery Mist and Snappi Kiddo Safety Finger Toothbrush.