Q: My 5-year-old has had eating issues since he was an infant. When I introduced solid food at six months, he began rejecting most vegetables. His feeding problems have worsened since then to the point, today, where he will eat only breaded chicken strips, Tater Tots, and vanilla ice cream (but only a certain brand). We worked with a feeding therapist for about six months but made no appreciable progress. She said he has a form of sensory integration disorder, which she explained as his brain is wired such that foods don’t taste to him the way they taste to most people. So, even certain sweet foods taste bitter to him, for example, and he will gag and even throw up at the mere sight of them. In addition, he reacts negatively to certain textures. My mom says I was a picky eater, so he apparently inherited a tendency in this direction from me. I’m grasping at straws here, but do you have any suggestions?
A: First, you need to know that there is zero confirmable evidence with which to back up the claims made by the occupational therapist. She cannot prove her contention that the “wiring” between your son’s taste buds and his brain is abnormal, nor can she can’t prove he inherited some “tendency” from you (contrary to popular belief, no one has proven that “tendencies” are inherited). What the OT told you is typical of the pseudo-scientific babble dispensed by professionals who can’t see outside the boundaries of the medical model they were taught in graduate school.
My very simple belief is that most if not all childhood behavior “disorders” are nothing more than long-standing bad habits. In some cases, it’s relatively easy to figure out how these habits developed while in other cases, it’s anyone’s best guess. At some point in the development of a certain bad habit, the child in question intuits (i.e. he cannot explain his thought process) that the behavior in question – in this case, refusing to eat certain foods – is a means by which he can control other people, cause them to treat him as a special case.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been consulted by dozens of parents about “feeding issues.” When parents cooperate and follow through as prescribed, my approach has never failed. It’s based on the commonsense notion that children will do what is to their advantage and, conversely, stop doing what is no longer to their advantage.
For example, I once had parents tell their preschool-age son that his picky eating (after six months in a feeding therapy program he was eating about five foods) was due to a lack of adequate sleep – that when a child doesn’t get enough sleep, taste buds stop working properly and food tastes weird. In other words, I had them begin their son’s “therapy” by redefining the problem in terms a young child could understand.
The solution became obvious: When he was unable to eat the food put on his plate at the evening meal (one teaspoon portions of what everyone else was eating), it simply meant he needed to catch up on his sleep. In that event, he was excused from the table and went to bed, lights out, curtains drawn. He did not like that, not one bit (pun!).
In less than a week, his repertoire of acceptable foods went from five to fifteen. The last time I checked, he was eating anything his parents put on his plate and usually asking for seconds. Mind you, a few nights of early bedtime “therapy” accomplished more than six months in a feeding therapy program where he received attention and concern for acting like his tongue and brain weren’t properly connected.