As a parent, you may be surprised to learn that as many as 1 in every 23 children has a pediatric feeding issue. Casey Callahan, a pediatric occupational therapist at MetroEHS Pediatric Therapy, shares some expert advice on these feeding disorders and how swallowing or feeding therapy can help.
More than just “picky eating”
As a pediatric occupational therapist, Callahan works with children and infants to create more positive relationships with food. Oftentimes, feeding disorders are dismissed as simply “picky eating.” But the strain and stress these disorders cause families can be severe.
Making the situation even more complicated is the amount of misconceptions about what’s normal for children when it comes to eating.
Callahan says she cringes when she hears some of these misunderstandings. “My biggest one is, ‘They’re a picky eater now, they’ll grow out of it,’ Or ‘If they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat. They won’t starve themselves.’”
But Callahan stresses this is not true. “I’ll have kids that will fall right off the growth curve when they are struggling with these feeding issues. They won’t eat even if they are starving, or they can’t.”
“I would love for parents to just know that there are services out there for exactly what they’re going through,” says Callahan. “It’s not uncommon. There are a lot of kids that struggle with this and there is help out there.”
How can you tell if your child would benefit from feeding or swallowing therapy?
With so many misconceptions about what’s normal for pediatric feeding, how can you tell if your child would benefit from feeding or swallowing therapy?
Callahan identified a few red flags to watch for. “My biggest thing is, of course, weight and height. Where are we at with the growth charts, are we still moving forward?”
Another consideration is the impact of the child’s eating habits on their mental health, or their family’s.
“I have clients that have some social anxiety or anxiety around food and they’ll go to school all day and won’t eat. And then they’re getting headaches and they can’t focus, and they’ll just want to wait until they get home to eat,” says Callahan, adding that it “can just be constant stress for everyone.”
Getting your child to therapy as soon as possible can make a big difference.
“Early intervention is so critical. Catching these things early, getting them before they snowball into bigger, more complex problems,” says Callahan. “Even getting kids as infants can really help having a more positive feeding experience moving forward as toddlers and children.”
Pediatric feeding disorders are highly complex
One thing parents may not realize about pediatric feeding disorders is that they are very complex and individualized.
Some clients have anxieties around food based on negative past experiences. Others may need to target motor skills with physical therapy in order to find comfort when eating.
With such complexity, a multi-disciplinary approach is key to effective treatment.
“Our therapy programs have been really unique from anything I’ve done before because they’re super collaborative,” says Callahan. With each patient, diverse specialists such as occupational therapists, speech therapists, dietitians and psychologists will all work together to evaluate the patient’s case and determine the best path for treatment.
Individualized care makes all the difference
Because each patient’s case is so unique, individualized care is important for truly meeting the needs of the child and family. This also means a culturally sensitive approach. Some cultures, says Callahan, may not place importance on using utensils. Others may want a specific food presented frequently throughout the day.
Of course, it also helps to make everything fun for the child.
“We want it to be a fun, engaging, stress-free experience for them,” says Callahan. “We had a read and feed program where we took a book that was themed around Dragons Love Tacos or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We made a whole curriculum around it that we could send to all the different clinics.”
And for the parents, it helps that MetroEHS has 17 locations across metro Detroit and continues to grow — meaning your appointment is never more than a few minutes’ drive away.
Learn more about MetroEHS Pediatric Therapy’s programs at metroehs.com.