Sensory Processing and Feeding… How does one affect the other?

You may have heard the term “sensory” being used to describe children who do not enjoy the feeling of tags on their clothing, or walking barefoot in sand or wet grass – but how could that possibly affect a child’s eating?

Often the term “sensory” is used to replace sensory processing, which is the brain’s ability to take in information from the 5 senses (sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing) and make sense of it in a usable way. Children or adults who experience severe difficulties with sensory processing may qualify for a diagnosis of SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) however, even mild difficulties with sensory processing can impact eating skills in young children who are just learning how to navigate new foods. Identifying and addressing these concerns can help keep your child on the right track for overall development, instead of going off the rails into feeding disorder territory.

If sensation is not processed efficiently in the rest of the body (think hands, feet), expect a more significant reaction to sensations in the mouth!
It is important to note that we all may process the senses differently, and that not all “sensory issues” will have a negative impact on a person (think not enjoying walking on wet grass, fidgeting with your pencil during a lecture) and we all have sensory needs that help us process the external world. The problem occurs when the brain is unable to take information from the senses and provide an adaptive response, or act accordingly.

The good new is that sensory processing skills can be improved, and with regards to the pediatric population – play based is the way! Children learn through play and having fun will help take the edge off budding anxiety. Incorporating fun, play based sensory experiences into every day life will help your child slowly acclimate and learn to process sensations a little more efficiently each day with continued exposure over time; a necessary skill for a one day adventurous eater!

Try the following food based sensory exploration activities to decrease anxiety and work on processing the sensory properties of foods in a creative and fun way!

Sensory bins: take your child’s favorite toy (Mr. Potato Head parts, little people, animals, cars) and place them or hide them in bins surrounded by foods. Dry firmer foods work best for these experiences (varying types of raw pastas, beans, cereals, oats) but when ready you can expose your child to these cooked as well.

Cooking or dying the pastas adds an additional sensory challenge as will be wet, oily or slimy! Adding a drop or two of food coloring adds to the fun. You can sort by color, or use the components to create an art scene!

Sorting activities – why not work on concepts and language skills at the same time? Sorting colored cereals, mixed nuts/beans or dyed pastas into cups to work on similarities/differences, many/few, color categories just to name a few!

Veggie Stamps – Cut firm vegetables like carrots into squared sticks or triangular sticks in addition to their circular shape, or have some fun with something naturally pretty like a lime or an okra!

Painting! You can paint with any purees (applesauce, sweet potato, yogurt). Add a drop of food coloring to spice up the color payoff. Use utensils or even real paint brushes if your little one isn’t ready to finger paint just yet. Feel free to do your own with your fingers so they get exposure to the visuals and the model from you. Remember how much children learn by observing adults!

Are your kiddos ready for sensory play with actual foods? Comment below and let us know if you’d like to see a post about sensory activities that do not include real foods.

Happy learning…. And don’t forget to keep it MESSY!

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