What Is Feeding Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 18, 2022
5 min read

Kids can be picky eaters, but some children struggle with eating more than others. While a number of children grow out of a picky eating phase, others may need some help to try new foods. Feeding therapy can be a great option for a child who isn’t eating or swallowing correctly. Here’s how to know if your child can benefit from feeding therapy, and a summary of how feeding therapy works.

Feeding therapy is a specialized kind of therapy that works with people, usually babies or children, to help them develop normal patterns and behaviors when it comes to eating. Therapists, such as occupational or speech therapists, work with their patients to teach them how to eat or how to improve their current eating habits.

However, feeding therapy goes beyond just teaching a child how to eat. This kind of therapy aims to make eating an enjoyable time for the child and their family. It can make eating both physically easier for the child and mentally less stressful. A trained therapist targets the child’s difficulty with eating, whether it be extreme pickiness when it comes to foods, or physical limitations, like difficulty chewing and swallowing.

Studies show that 20% of children face eating difficulties before the age of seven. While about half of these children grow out of it, the others need extra help. Children with feeding problems often become anxious or stressed when they are asked to try new foods or if there’s a change to their diet. There are several signs to look for if you think that your child is having feeding problems. Here are some warning signs, broken down by age group:

Babies up to 6 months:

  • coughing or choking during feeding
  • problems coordinating eating and breathing
  • frequent projectile vomiting
  • feedings that go on for more than half an hour

6 to 12 months

  • difficulty trying baby food or purées
  • refusing to open their mouth or turning their head away during feeding
  • lack of interest in trying finger foods
  • frequent coughing or gagging during mealtime

Children over 1 year

  • very restricted diet
  • avoiding entire food groups or food with certain textures
  • coughing or choking while drinking
  • inability to drink from a straw
  • they become upset when presented with new foods
  • low weight or losing weight because they refuse to eat

Some children with autism find feeding difficult because of the sensory overload, so feeding therapy is often beneficial in these cases.

If you suspect that your child might be having feeding problems, the first step is to have your child’s pediatrician do an assessment. From there, your pediatrician will refer your child to a feeding therapy specialist. Then, your specialist will most likely work with your child for one or two sessions a week that each last for an hour. The feeding therapy specialist’s aim is to determine if your child’s issues are sensory, motor, or both.

Once the speech or occupational therapist targets your child’s issues, they can work with your child to address them by:

  • Exploring new foods, especially when it comes to textures
  • Improving coordination when it comes to swallowing and eating
  • Improving oral motor skills
  • Tasting foods your child normally wouldn’t on their own

For very young babies who are having trouble feeding, the therapy could be more intense to make sure that your child is getting the nutrition that they need. When working with newborns, a feeding therapy specialist will use technology and techniques in multiple sessions each day to help you and your baby learn how to feed together.

There are many different techniques that therapists use when it comes to feeding therapy. They decide the best ones to use after learning more about your child and their difficulties with eating. One popular method that many therapists choose to use is the SOS (sequential-oral-sensory Approach, which was developed by Dr. Kay Toomey, an expert in feeding therapy.

The SOS Approach encourages children to learn more about food and textures by playing and becoming comfortable around new foods. This is a low-stress way for your child to see and feel foods using their senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching them. Your child’s therapist will encourage them to use their fingers, hands, and mouth to explore new sensations. It will start slow, simply licking or biting the food and then spitting it out. Eventually, your child will build up to chewing and swallowing.

Two other popular techniques are the Beckman Oral Motor Approach and the Behavioral approach. The Beckman Oral Motor Approach helps children to improve motor skills related to the mouth by improving movement and control of the lips, jaw, and tongue. The Behavioral Approach rewards children by giving them small prizes for performing new skills correctly.

Feeding therapy with a specialist can greatly help your child, but there are several things that you can do at home to help them as well. Here are some feeding therapy ideas to introduce at home and practice as a family.

Set a routine. When it comes to mealtime, set a routine by sticking to a meal schedule. Make sure that meals are free from distractions like screens or toys so that you and your child can be present and focused during the meal. Your child should be relaxed, so limit any stimuli in the room so that they can try their food without feeling overwhelmed.

Make it fun. Present foods with a variety of textures and colors. Let your child feed themselves, even if things get messy. Don’t get angry, but encourage them to eat the food and let them know when they are doing a good job. You can cut foods into fun shapes or arrange them in interesting ways to make your child more interested in the food.

Encourage your child to help. When it’s time to prepare a meal, ask your child to help you cook or prepare. This gives them the chance to explore the food with their senses as the meal comes together. Keep things light and positive. Eating as a family when possible is also helpful so that your child can see everyone else enjoying the food, as well.