How Sensory Processing Can Affect Eating

Posted by

Breanne Haeger, MOT, OTR/L

Time to read

4 minutes

Does your child love to jump and “crash” into furniture? Do they enjoy loud music, bright colors, and messy play? Does it feel like you’re chasing a tornado around the house?! We get it. 

Or, is messy play like the.worst.thing.ever?! Maybe loud noises, like the blender or vacuum cleaner, result in crocodile tears and horror movie screams?

Do they come home from the playground with bumps and bruises, but they can’t remember where they came from? Do you have to call their name over and over before they respond, or even recognize, that you’re trying to talk to them? Anyone else feel like they have to do a handstand to get their child’s attention!?

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

All of these examples relate to something we call sensory processing

Sensory processing is just a fancy way to say how we react to and understand the sensations in our environment and body. Everyone interprets sensory information differently! This information is important to keep us safe and to help us experience the world around us.

Ok, this is like a personality quiz, but more fun! There are generally four categories for how people interpret sensory input. These categories include: low registration, sensory sensitive, sensory seeking, and sensory avoiding. Try finding the category(ies) that would best describe you and your child!

Low Registration

Low registration means that it takes a lot to “wake up” the senses. These children might have cuts and bruises without being able to remember where they came from. They might trip and fall over items in the house that are clearly visible! It takes more sensory input for these children to recognize and respond to sensory information than it does for most children. You might have a child that fits into this category if you feel like a broken record of saying their name, “look!”, and “right there!”

Sensory Seeking

If your child is sensory seeking, they may feel like they never have enough when it comes to movement and other input. It’s a craving they just can’t quite satisfy most of the time. (Who can relate to that? emoji). When they’re on the swing, they always want to go higher and faster. When they listen to music, they want it to be louder. These children typically like bright lights, busy patterns, lots of movement, and messy play. If you’re a grown up of a sensory seeking little one, we applaud your energy and patience.

Sensory Sensitive

Children who are sensory sensitive are often easily overwhelmed by sensory information. These children have a high level of awareness of their environment, and they are easily distracted. Does it feel like your life is a constant state of “Goldilocks”, where everything has to be just right for your child to participate or engage?

Sensory Avoiding

If your child is sensory avoiding they might be extra sensitive to sensory input — to the point that they go way out of their way to avoid uncomfortable stimulation. It may be very difficult for them to be around loud noises, bright lights, and messy textures. Do you constantly need to have a years’ supply of baby wipes on hand? Or do you have to go places on off hours so your little one doesn’t have a meltdown in the store?

So, you may be wondering… how does this relate to eating?!

It has SO MUCH to do with eating! Eating is a highly sensory experience and incorporates all of the senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing). By having an understanding of how your child processes sensory input, you’ll have a clearer picture of why they may be struggling with certain foods and why they LOVE other foods. You are the expert of your child, and we want to provide you with tools and knowledge to support them.

If you think your child is low registration or sensory seeking:

  • Try offering foods with more flavor (more salt, spice, cinnamon, vanilla, etc.)
  • These children may eat better if they’re getting the input they need from their foods! Offer foods that provide lots of tactile feedback (crunchy, chewy) instead of mushy, soft foods (for example, sprinkle crushed nuts on oatmeal, or breadcrumbs on pasta)
  • Provide foods with strong smells
  • Play with food and talk about the sensory qualities you notice (“Can you hear it crunch in my mouth?”)
  • Play music during mealtime

If you think your child is sensory sensitive or sensory avoiding:

  • Provide meals in a quiet environment with few distractions
  • Introduce new foods slowly, and use food chaining strategies
  • Encourage food play with new foods (away from the table) before introducing during a mealtime
  • Provide lots of opportunities in a low-pressure environment for playing with new foods
  • Let them touch new or messy foods with a toothpick, mini salad tongs, or fork
  • Give them a warning when there will be a loud noise, a strong smell, or when food will be crunchy or flavorful. Talk about the sensory qualities of the foods you offer!
  • Let them hear and watch you chew your food, yes, with an open mouth (we get to let go of manners for a second!). This will show them what to expect in their ears and mouth if they take a bite!

We all have different sensory needs and preferences. Some don’t affect us very much, and some affect us a whole lot. If the way your child processes (or struggles to process) sensory information negatively impacts their daily life (or your daily life!), they may benefit from occupational therapy. Please reach out to us to set up a free consultation if you have any questions or want more information!