3 Real Reasons for Picky Eating
Why is your toddler a picky eater? Is it them just going through a picky eating phase or is it something medical, sensory or oral motor?
3 real reasons for toddler picky eating
Is picky eating just a normal part of toddlerhood?
While it’s normal to expect fluctuations in the amount of food toddlers eat and some preferences for food (like that toddlers are a bit more sensitive to bitter vegetables like raw spinach) picky eating should never be ignored.
Once we fall into a habit of serving up only chicken nuggets and plain spaghetti we actually do our toddlers a disservice by snowballing their picky eating.
Are you not exactly sure if your toddler is a picky eater? Check out my FREE 4 week email course: AN ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS. You will receive an email with free printables, guided problem solving, reflections and tons of tips and tricks in your inbox once a week for four weeks with no strings attached: completely free.
In the first week I will walk you through exactly how to figure out how many types of foods, colors and textures your toddler is eating in less than 2 minutes a day. As well as reflect on the number 1 most overlooked influence on toddler meal times.
Does that mean picky eating is something learned?
Although 48% of Americans say parents are to blame for picky eating, that is definitely not always the case.
Yes, yes there are some things we unknowingly do to snowball picky eating.
However there are real underlying difficulties that make eating a very scary thing for some toddlers.
The way we approach mealtimes and the recommended strategies for overcoming picky eating are very different from a tot that has underlying difficulties.
3 REAL reasons for picky eating
1: Medical reasons
Constipation, allergies and digestive issues like acid reflux can play a big part in picky eating for toddlers.
If you suspect that these are the underlying causes of picky eating speak to your pediatrician.
Eating is a multi sensory experience. Imagine eating :
- With your eyes closed
- Without the feeling of the food inside your mouth
- Not feeling the crunch of chewing
- Without smelling
- Food having no taste
Hard to imagine right?
Our sensory experience of eating makes it a pleasurable experience but for some can make eating very unpleasant and even scary.
Each of us experience sensations on a spectrum. For example:
- Cucumber: some find it crunchy, some find it squishy
- Or sand: some people love the feeling of walking on beach sand and others prefer to wear sandals when walking on the sand.
How do sensory issues play a part in picky eating?
People with sensory issues may experience these same sensations outside of the norm to the point that it prevents them from eating certain foods or doing certain activities.
The way their brain interprets the sensation may be that it is a very horrible feeling or that it’s something they have to have more of.
Lets relook at the example of cucumber
- Some might find cucumber to be so squishy and slimy (like the worst kind of slug you could imagine) that even looking at a cucumber can make them gag or vomit
- The other side of sensory issues may be that without having something crunchy against their teeth or their mouth full, the child can’t really FEEL their mouth or tongue, almost like it’s melting away or evaporating.
This is not just a mindset, it’s neurological.
Sensory issues play a part in every step of eating from looking, smelling, tasting, feeling, touching and chewing food.
What is normal sensory development for babies and toddlers?
Sensory development is a huge topic so for the purpose of this article I’m referring to sensory development as it relates to eating.
- Smell: By the 3rd trimester babies are able to smell however a child’s sensitivity to smell only fully develops by age 6-7 years.
- Taste: By 13 weeks old a baby has full taste buds in their mouth but they prefer sweet tastes and are more sensitive to bitter tastes (like raw spinach). This sensitivity lessens and becomes more like how adults taste bitterness around age 2.
- Touch: Babies are born with innate reflexes and responses to touch in order to protect itself. Therefore their tolerance for different textures of food to be limited when you first start feeding (at 6 months). Meaning it’s normal for a baby to spit out new foods and even gag at first.
We then see a progression to exploring and learning about the feeling of food by using their hands and tongue to play with food. Yes, it’s messy but it’s an important step developmentally.
Somewhere between 1 year to 18 months of age a toddler stops gagging and spitting out food and develops a “menu” of food preferences. This menu should include some 30-40 different items of food of various taste, color and texture.
It may take 12-15 times of being exposed to a food for your toddler to actually add it to their repertoire of foods that they regularly eat.
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How can you tell if your toddler’s picky eating is because of sensory issues?
Sensory issues around food are present in a very large percentage of picky eaters.
Even if your toddler is speaking, they may not actually verbalise why they don’t like a certain food.
Often, we think that our kids are just “fussy” because we don’t see them responding in a way that “looks like” a sensory issue.
As an example, your tot may not hold their nose and say “phew, that stinks” even if they have a very strong sensitivity to smell.
They may not tell you that the cucumber feels like 10 slippery slimy slugs in their mouth.
What will they do?
- Seem irritable, shout, maybe cry at mealtimes
- Possibly gag or vomit when trying a new food
- Refuse to eat a certain food or the whole plate of food when a “no-no” food is present. They might even throw the plate.
- Refuse to feed themselves
- Not explore foods: they seem to skip the playing with their food part of development and become distressed if their hands get dirty.
- Have strong preferences for certain foods, colors or textures of food and possibly even brands
- Regularly eat a limited selection of foods (less than 20 different foods).
- Eat very fast and seem to skip the chewing phase of eating.
Is my toddler a picky eater because of sensory issues?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions your toddler could be experiencing some sensory issues which are causing picky eating.
This is unlikely to be something that your toddler will grow out of. So getting clarity on what part of the sensory experience of eating bothers your child (taste, smell, tactile, proprioception) and implementing the right strategies is super important.
In my FREE 4 week email course: AN ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS I will walk you through investigating your toddlers sensory issues and how to turn meal times around in your home.
How can you help your toddler with sensory difficulties?
Feeding therapy offered by an Occupational Therapist or a Speech Therapist can be of great help to picky eaters. As I’ve said many times, when it comes to therapy, sooner is better than later.
Here are a few tips to try out in the meantime:
No pressure to eat:
Studies have shown that parental pressure to “finish your plate” or “just take a bite” actually worsens picky eating tendencies. I know how difficult it is to control your own emotions and feelings of frustration at meal times with a picky eater.
Encourage sensory exploration through play
If the reason for your toddlers picky eating is tactile (touch) related a great way to help them develop is sensory play.
Start with sensory bins that are dry and not “gooey” and let your tot play as little or much as they want.
Leave the sensory bin out as an invitation to play or stew for a few days.
It might take a few days before your tot actually agrees to touch it and a few more before they agree to pour and dig and play.
Here are a few ready made sensory bins that I like:
Worried about your house getting messy?
I find a sensory table is an easy work around this. By having the table out it invites your toddler into sensory play everyday.
It’s a great way to invest in your toddlers sensory development and encourage independent play.
These are a few I like:
These often eliminate the fear that sensory picky eaters have around food touching.
While I don’t recommend them for kids that don’t have sensory issues (see) they can be a great place to start for those that do. Here are a few I like:
Get your toddler cooking
I really can’t empathise enough how beneficial it is to create a safe space where toddlers can look at, smell and touch food with no pressure to eat it. Helping prepare food, whether it be spreading chocolate on bread or top and tailing green beans is a fun way to do this.
Bonus: you get connection time with your toddler and they learn critical practical life skills. Win win!
We dive deeper into how to do this in the ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS (free)
Encourage mouthing toys
If sensory issues around food stem from the sensory processing within the mouth, your picky eater may have skipped the “mouthing” phase of development.
It’s good to re-encourage this learning with mouthing toys or vibration toys in the mouth. Here the 2 I recommend:
Offer new foods in a safe way
We have to start from a place of empathising with our kids and understanding that new foods are genuinely hard for them.
Also by setting our expectations correctly.
They are unlikely to try a new food the first time. They need sometimes 15 exposures to food before trying it.
As you have probably experienced- exposing your toddler to a new food can be challenging if they throw the plate everytime something new is on it.
There are 3 ways I like to do this:
- Cooking together. As I said above, this is a safe way to expose your picky eater to something new. When getting started with cooking together you should try sensory safe foods (see below).
- Having an exploration minute before eating: Before everyone is served dinner, each person gets a plate with 1 tiny amount of a new food on it. As a family you can talk about the food, and everyone is invited to touch or taste it if they would like. No pressure. When the minute is over, the plates are removed and dinner as normal.
- A side plate: Serve your toddler their meal on their plate as usual and place a small amount of a new (safe) food on a side plate. No pressure, but if your toddler wants to, they are welcome to try it.
Choose new foods wisely from my sensory safe list
In order to get some trust and cooperation from your toddler it’s best to start with foods that are close to the colors and textures that they already eat. You aren’t going to get much buy-in by starting with a passion fruit or steamed spinach.
(The sensory SAFE list is included in AN ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS free)
3: Oral Motor
When it comes to picky eaters we can’t overlook the role of the muscles and mechanics of the mouth, tongue and jaw. There are around 50 muscles (as well as many nerves) involved in the act of eating.
What does oral motor difficulty mean?
Oral (mouth) motor (movement) difficulties may refer to:
- Weak facial muscles
- Low oral motor tone
- Difficulty in coordinating movements of the tongue, cheeks, lips and mouth (possibly related to retained primitive reflexes)
What is normal oral motor development for babies and toddlers?
Naturally what a 1 year old can effectively chew is different to what a 3 year old can eat. As an example, if you give a baby a piece of steak they will suck on it, if you give a 3 year old steak, they will try to chew it.
We expect a 1 year old to be able to
- eat juicy/ wet foods (like soup or a juicy fruit)
- As well as chew and swallow firmer foods such as soft fruits (clementine), vegetables (broccoli), pasta and some meats (chicken drumstick).
From around 16 months a toddler should be able to:
- Takes bites out of food (like a sandwich)
- Eat ‘harder’ foods like raw vegetables and meats
- Hold food in their mouth while chewing
- Eat a full variety of textured food
How can you tell if your toddler’s picky eating stems from oral motor difficulties?
- How does your toddler’s mouth look?
Is their mouth often ‘hanging’ open? Saggy looking lips? Tongue hanging out of mouth? Drooling?
- How does your toddler eat?
Your toddler doesn’t seem to chew properly? Food falls out of their mouth? Your toddler seems to squash food with tongue instead of chewing? He/she tries to swallow big chunks of food and may gag on these?
- What do they eat?
Do they seem to favor soft or crunchy foods? Does your toddler seem to eat better and more when it’s pureed food?
- How do they use their mouths in play activities?
Do they seem to be unable to blow bubbles or blow out candles or drink from a straw (if over 2 years)?
Does my toddler have oral motor difficulties affecting picky eating
A positive answer to any of these questions could mean that your toddler is experiencing some oral motor difficulties which are causing picky eating.
But it’s not exactly black and white because there are many overlaps between oral motor and sensory issues that contribute towards picky eating.
For more clarity see a full checklist on oral motor and sensory issues as well as tips and printables for improving oral motor skills in my FREE 4 week email course: AN ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS.
How can you help your toddlers oral motor skills and picky eating?
Oral motor difficulties and picky eating can be greatly impacted by feeding therapy done by an Occupational Therapist.
Some ways you can support your toddler at home are:
- Blowing bubbles
- Sucking from a straw like these fun reusable kids straws
- Using a vibration brush to play inside their mouth
- Flutes or harmonicas like these bath flutes
- Blowing whistles, like this wooden train whistle
- Ball float toys that require your toddler to sustain blowing like this pipe.
- Imitating different tongue movement with these cards for imitating
You can find more tips and printables in my FREE 4 week email course: AN ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS.
I hope this has been helpful to you and want to offer you some hope- even extreme picky eaters can learn to eat variety. It takes a lot of patience and hard work but with the right support, you can help your toddler.