Is your child a ‘fussy eater?’

Do you feel your child’s fussy eating is more than the usual ‘fussiness’ you see in children?

Many parents are trying to deal with fussy eaters and are in constant battle with their children about what they are eating!

It is typical for children to go through phases of ‘fussiness’ where they are exploring their level of control and what they can get away with! But sometimes children are fussy from the start, they continue this through to childhood and have difficulty eating a variety of foods as they get older. As the parent you often know that it is more than just being ‘fussy’ and that it is not in their control, but you can’t work out what it is!

So why does this happen? Are they just being difficult or is there more to it?

There are many reasons why children appear to be fussy eaters and I am not trying to simplify this phenomenon – but this blog is focusing purely on oral sensitivities.

Other areas of need may be biological factors, motor limitations, poor sensory regulation, psychological issues or situational reasons.

Let me tell you my story:
I am a person who was/is labelled as a ‘fussy’ eater, it is something I have struggled with my whole life – and now I am the mother of a ‘fussy eater’ (yes this can be a genetic trait) and I am helping my daughter through this process  – I hope I can help shed some light on what you or your child might be going through in terms of processing what you/they are eating!

In your mouth you have 4 different types of sensory input being detected;

  • Taste – this is what most people think of when they think of food – the sweet or savoury, strong or mild tastes.
  • Texture – this is what people usually think of in terms of things they don’t like – eg. – the sliminess of oysters
  • Temperature – this is what people think of in term of danger (burn the mouth, get brain freeze etc)
  • Proprioception – this is the deep pressure feedback you get from your mouth when you chew – the muscle work around the mouth.

Each of these elements can need/deal with different levels of input.

For me it looks something like this;
Where 10 is seeking and 1 is avoiding or intolerant

AreaLevel of tolerance
Temperature preferences5

My tolerance level of texture is so small that it over rides all of the other elements – even though I seek proprioception (which is deep pressure in my jaw – like chewing) unless the ‘chewy’ food is a consistent texture throughout the chewing process, I will still not eat it.

Basically my philosophy on food is put it in the mouth, chew it as fast as possible and swallow it before your brain has time to process too many textures! So needless to say I eat very fast!
I will try to backtrack a bit for you so you can understand what it looked like when I was younger.

My poor mum had issues feeding me from about 5 months old – as soon as she started to introduce textured food I started expressing my dislike to texture!

My very persistent and supportive mother tried everything to get me to eat pureed fruit and vegetables as a baby – pureeing it so there were no lumps at all, leaving lumps in it, adding Vegemite, gravy, cheese sauce, adding everything and anything she could think of to get me to eat the food – nothing was successful. Still to this day I cannot stand the texture of pureed foods, it has a grimy texture to it that my mouth dislikes!

I would happily eat custard, yogurt, jelly etc (perfectly smooth and equal consistencies). As I got older I was able to eat more things such as white bread, cereals, pasta, sausages (specific ones only) and minced meat (unless you tried to add anything to it other than plain sauces).

I can remember always saying the phrase “Yuk – it has ‘BITS’ in it!”

To me everything had ‘bits’ in it. I can now articulate ‘bits’ to mean a change in texture – something that my brain/tongue isn’t able to process alongside the other textures. So anything that had 2 or more distinctively different textures was off limits – this included crunchy foods like carrots that change texture while you chew! Looking back now I also know that foods that left a coating on the tongue was the other type of food I couldn’t eat – but at the time I didn’t understand that myself – these are foods like avocado and banana.

Brushing my teeth was another area of stress for me and my parents. Toothpaste felt like it was burning my mouth! The strong taste of toothpaste and the fluffy texture were too much to bare. After a lot of trials eventually I tolerated a tiny dot of bubble gum flavoured tooth paste on my toothbrush when brushing my teeth – unfortunately they stopped making this a few years later and I was back to square 1!
Then one day, suddenly, I found that brushing my teeth didn’t hurt and I started adding more toothpaste and I could cope with it – but I couldn’t explain why. About 15 years later, while brushing my teeth next to my mum, she asked why my tongue was on the roof of my mouth – I didn’t really know except that I thought that was normal. When I looked at her in the mirror and her tongue was covered in toothpaste I started gaging! The simple thought of that texture and taste on my tongue was enough to send my sensory systems into overload. Still to this day I brush my teeth with my tongue on the roof of my mouth and I cope with the process well.

While I was growing up I was constantly told by people who didn’t understand –

“You’re just fussy”

“Just try it”

“You just don’t want to like it”

Now, to a child that doesn’t understand why she can’t eat jelly beans or musk-sticks or soft drink like all her friends this doesn’t make sense. All I ever wanted was to be the same as everyone else. Parties required a special bottle of juice (with no pulp and clear coloured so it didn’t have any cloudiness that leaves a coating on the tongue). If the cake had jam in the middle I couldn’t eat it, if lunch was something like butcher sausages (with gristle in it) I couldn’t eat it… trust me if I could have eaten these things like everyone else I would have!

I have never met a child with sensory differences that didn’t want to be “just like everyone else”

I couldn’t eat hot chips because of the potato texture, Ice cream with ice bits on it were a no, strawberries were horrible and grapes were inedible – all of which I LOVED the taste of I just couldn’t handle the textures. My amazing mother realised this and would peel strawberries, yes she actually peeled them (for those of you with under responsive oral senses there are tiny seeds, hair like things, and slimy skin on that part of the strawberry.) My mum would peel and de-seed grapes and buy the foods and drinks that I could handle.

As I got older I subconsciously ‘learnt’ not to try anything new in case I gagged or vomited, I learnt to avoid situations where eating was involved or I happily ate a bread roll (there is many an event I went to when all food was sent back untouched other than the bread roll). This is where my sensory difficulty could have been classified as a disorder as it started to impact on my life.
All of this continued through my teenage years – my friends accepted it, I accepted it and life went on. I happened to choose a career as an OT and while at University I started to learn about sensory processing and the differences everyone has when processing external stimuli, I also started to learn how to correct these differences and started myself on an oral desensitisation program (designed by myself).

My biggest motivation was to drink alcohol – theoretically not the best form of motivation but as an 18 year old – I was determined! All premixed spirit drinks were fizzy which to me felt like bombs exploding in my mouth and coming out my nose! With every tiny sip I had my whole body would shake, muscles all tense up and as fast as I could I would swallow it – this was not a good look for a teenage girl trying to fit in.

So I began buying the drinks a week before I wanted to drink them, opening them and letting them go flat.

To me, with an overly sensitive mouth ‘flat’ carbonated drinks were only just bearable – I could still feel the bubbles in ‘flat’ drinks, when I asked others to taste it they told me it was like cordial with no bubbles at all – but I could feel them. So I did this for a while until I could happily drink these ‘flat’ drinks. Then I gradually decreased the time I opened the drinks prior to drinking them and eventually I got to a point where I could drink soft drinks and premixed spirits just like everyone else!

This is something that is hard for me to explain but I feel it is the best description I have that helps people understand how I process food in my mouth:
To me, with an overly sensitive mouth ‘flat’ carbonated drinks were only just bearable because of the bubbles – now 13 years on since my desensitisation program started this “just bearable” feeling is what freshly opened soft drink feels like to me.

So think about the difference between flat soft drink (that tastes like cordial to most people) and freshly opened soft drink – and this is the amount of desensitisation I have gone through.

Now I am sure lots of you are thinking what a ridiculous focus for me to work on first – I should have worked on the texture of vegetables or things with nutrition… But these programs need to be motivational and at that point in my life that was important to me.

As I got older and met my husband and started to think about having children I was then motivated to be able to eat vegetables and fruits to provide nutrition to my children in utero as well as being able to honestly say “you have to eat your broccoli – look mummy likes it.” So around the age of 24 I started this process – slowly increasing my tolerance to these foods by mixing tiny portions of them with foods I love and gradually building it up…7 years later I now have 3 children and I am still working on eating some things. But I can now tolerate broccoli, cauliflower, peas, corn, beans, snow peas, potato, sweet potato, pineapple, beetroot, tomato, mango etc.
I cannot honestly say to my children “Eat your broccoli – look mummy likes it” but I can say “sometimes you have to eat foods you don’t like, mummy doesn’t really like broccoli but I can eat it.” Which is a huge accomplishment for me!

My story isn’t going to be exactly the same as other people’s stories – everyone is different and the table I showed at the beginning will look different for everyone – but I hope my story helps you look at your ‘fussy’ child with new eyes!

So what can you do if you think your child might have a similar textural issue as I have described above:

  1. Never force feed your child – eating needs to be perceived as an enjoyable experience, it is already unpleasant for your child, don’t make it worse!
  2. Give your child time and let them set their goals – decreasing sensitivity is a long hard process and they need to be self-motivated!
  3. Seek assistance – We offer a multidisciplinary feeding clinic at One Stop Allied Health & Medical Centre in Moorebank, Sydney. Call us to book an appointment if you would like a consultation to help you through this journey. As you can see we truly understand what your child is going through! Please note: we will look at all the reasons for fussy eating – not just the sensory reason described above.