Can sensory play impact a child’s relationship with food?

In my blog, ‘The Importance of Messy Play’, I described many of the benefits of messy play. Something I didn’t particularly touch on though, was the impact that messy (or sensory play) can have on a child’s relationship with food. I have lots of conversations with parents who descr

ibe their little ones as ‘picky eaters’, and who struggle with certain food textures. So this blog is to help you understand if sensory processing is impacting on your child’s relationship with food and, perhaps more importantly, what you can do to help.

Food aversion and sensory processing

Before we talk about sensory food aversion, it’s perhaps helpful to look at what sensory processing is.

Right from the start, children use their senses to explore and try and make sense of the world around them. Although a newborn is able to see, hear and sense their body, they are unable to organise these senses well and, therefore, this information means very little. As the infant is exposed to more and more sensory inputs, they start to learn to organise their senses within the brain and they are able to manage and cope with more and more sensory inputs at anyone time.

A healthy sensory system forms the foundation for all future learning and organising these senses is important for appropriate physical skill mastery, behaviour, attention and self regulation.

Think about it, eating is a huge sensory experience - the look of the food, the smell, the temperature, the taste and texture. Some children are just unable to process all these sensory elements and struggle to eat certain types/textures of food, often resulting in them being labelled ‘picky eaters’.

Also consider mealtimes and the environment. We all want to make sure our little ones eat healthy and are growing as expected by health professionals. Often, mealtimes can be fraught with angst and can be hectic, especially if you have more than one child - all adding to the sensory input (and potential overload).

How can sensory play help with sensory processing and eating?

Exposing babies and toddlers to a whole range of different sensory experiences from an early age is crucial for healthy sensory integration. It also helps desensitise the sensory system, helping to prevent overload.

Messy play allows babies and toddlers to explore different sights, sounds, smells and textures in a relaxed and fun environment, at a time when you are not worrying about what your child is or isn’t eating. Positive experiences and associations are also essential for children to develop a healthy relationship with food.

Sensory play for sensory food aversion

Play with a variety of textures. Make up a treasure basket to encourage exploration

Interact with food. Allow babies and toddlers to explore and play with different foods and textures. Jelly and cold spaghetti are great. You can even put food in zip filing bags, and let them explore it that way.

Use real foods in play. Ditch the plastic toy foods. Children love playing with real items - just like mummy!!

Cook together. From a very young age, children will love to get involved in the kitchen. From handling food and putting it in a saucepan to making crispy cakes, give children lots of opportunities to experience different smells, textures etc in a fun environment.

Don’t be too clean. It’s okay for babies and children to get mucky. Encourage good hygiene but you don’t have to be constantly wiping sticky fingers.

Remember, to supervise your little one at all times, whilst playing with food and ensure there are no choking hazards. If you are particularly concerned about your child’s eating habits, please seek advice from a health professional.

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