How Speech Pathologists Help with Feeding and Swallowing

Is your child having problems transitioning to solids, chewing their food, swallowing food or drinks? Maybe they are experiencing difficulties with eating different food textures, only eat a limited variety of foods or experience anxiety and exhibit challenging behaviours at mealtimes? If mealtimes have become stressful or a struggle in your household, then an assessment by a Speech Pathologist may be the perfect place to begin!

Let’s Talk About Feeding

As well as its primary role of providing nutrition for growth and development, positive feeding experiences can enhance your child’s socialisation, communication and sharing skills. Feeding difficulties may present during any part of your child’s developmental stages of feeding. You may notice challenges with their oral motor skills (sucking, swallowing, chewing), nutrition, meal-time environment, interactions with food or sensory processing. While the process of selecting and rejecting food is quite normal and will help your child learn about feeding and food (I’m sure that as a parent you have worn a meal or two). It is important to be aware that feeding difficulties are common and can occur due to a variety of circumstances.

When we talk about feeding, we are referring to the whole experience; food awareness including touching and selecting appropriate foods, bringing food/drink to the mouth, chewing and then swallowing. The experience or process of eating involves many complex steps, including the development of neural pathways in the brain that help your child perform many of the tasks associated with selecting and eating foods. And with these complex steps, comes challenges and a variety of ways that your child may have difficulties. If your child does have difficulties with feeding and swallowing, you may notice that your child:

  • Appears to ‘choke’ on their food
  • Spits food out or vomits during feeding
  • Coughs, gags, or makes loud breathy sounds during meals
  • Has a harder time chewing certain foods
  • Refuses food or has strong aversions to certain foods
  • Exhibits challenging behaviours during meal time

Luckily, Speech Pathologists can help parents identify the difficulty and develop a plan that will help your child explore all aspects of feeding and food in a fun and engaging way.

How Do Speech Pathologists Help with Feeding and Swallowing?

Speech Pathologists have a great understanding of the anatomy structures for swallowing, the mechanisms of chewing and swallowing and the ways that swallowing problems can occur. We are also trained in various approaches to help children who have aversions or sensory difficulties with certain types of foods.

For most families, feeding therapy will commence with a thorough assessment where we look at structural factors, including how your child is positioned during meal times, we examine your child’s oral structures and movements while eating and may look at the sensory factors of foods and obtain a detailed inventory of your child’s preferred foods.

This assessment helps to inform the goals for ongoing therapy where we can provide tools and strategies that address the mealtime environment, positioning, introducing new foods, the different methods of feeding, managing feeding behaviours and reducing aversions to certain food types.

Feeding TherapyFeeding therapy can also involve face-to-face sessions where we introduce your child to a wider range of textures and tastes in fun ways. Utilising your child’s interests and goals, this could include ‘food play’ where your child is encouraged to explore the different characteristics of food, look at different temperatures of food and even encourage them to make simple treats themselves.

Making Feeding Fun

When it comes to feeding and exploring food, it is important to make the experience fun. As mentioned above, we work hard to ensure that feeding therapy is fun and relevant for each family. By looking at your child’s interests, their feeding skills, and challenges, we can develop appropriate goals and help build feeding confidence. But fun with food doesn’t have to stop when you leave the therapy session. Sure, mealtime can be stressful, but allowing your child to explore different foods by using ‘food play’ is a great way to help them become more familiar with the different characteristics of food (how they look and feel). Getting your child involved in food preparation and cooking is also a great way to expose them to a variety of different foods and food processes. During therapy we will support you as the parent and provide at-home activities to help introduce new foods and set up effective mealtime strategies that will help keep the fun going.

Food for Thought

When it comes to helping your child explore different foods and tackle any challenges they may be experiencing with eating and swallowing, here are a few simple things you can try to set up a stress-free mealtime and help your child feel confident:

  • Keep mealtime fun and safe. This will help your child build a positive relationship with feeding and food. Also, if your child feels safe and supported they will be more inclined to try new foods.
  • Make time for family meal time. Eating together is a feel-good social experience and will provide your child with an opportunity to not only explore new foods in a fun and supported environment, but will help them develop their communication skills as well.
  • Reduce the time your child needs to sit at the table and / or eat. Your child doesn’t want to be stuck at the table for too long, so consider reducing eating time to 5 – 20 minutes. You can always come back later and try again.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to explore new food with their fingers, hands, body, face and mouth. This might be messy, but it is a great way for them to experience their food. It is also a good idea to encourage your child to help you in the kitchen and you can talk your way through the food prep process to help with language development as well.
  • Introduce food fun outside of mealtime. For example, your child could create funny faces with cut veggies, fruit and bread. Touching can be just as important as eating.

If you are concerned with your child’s feeding, talk to us today! You are an important part of your child’s feeding journey, so we encourage you to ask questions and let us know what is or isn’t working at home. We are here to guide you through your concerns and look at the next steps we can take to help you and your child to make mealtimes a positive experience. In the meantime, celebrate any of your child’s successes with feeding and encourage lots of fun food play and exploration of food!

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