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3 Sensory Tricks That Get my Picky Eater Toddler to Eat

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If you have a picky eater toddler who sometimes refuses to eat any table foods, it is extremely frustrating and scary. You might want to try these easy sensory tricks I use to get my toddler son to eat, maybe they'll work for you too.

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If you're new to this blog, let me catch you up: this blog is not about the average picky toddler who doesn't like broccoli and wants dinosaur nuggets instead. My son, who is almost two years old at the time I am writing this article, has never really liked solid foods. He's had reflux and eating problems his whole life, and we've heard the phrase "failure to thrive" from more than one pediatrician as he struggled to gain weight for over a year.

Ideally you would let kids listen to their bodies and wouldn't make them eat if they don't want to, but for us that was not an option. When my son was 15 months old, he would go for days without eating anything other than a few cheerios per day (and breast milk, of course - I pumped for over a year and a half, read about it here: quitting pumping after 1.5 years). He was losing weight and struggling to even reach the 1st percentile on the growth chart. He was hungry and whiny but refused to eat. So we had to do whatever we could to feed him. But of course, we had to do this in a way that was not stressful for him so that he wouldn't feel pressured to eat.

After lots of trial and error, I started noticing patterns about my son's eating and realized that a few feeding techniques consistently worked better than others. For example, the whole airplane spoon thing NEVER worked for my son. Feeding his favorite dinosaur or toy (or whatever) and then feeding my son also never worked. Eating the same food in front of him never persuaded him to eat (in fact, he would sometimes scream 'NO!' if he saw us eating something he didn't want to eat, or even gag and throw up).

But when he grabbed the baby food container lid or the little cap from the ChooMe pouch, he would suddenly start opening his mouth for food. When he dropped the fork on the floor and I fed him with my hand, he suddenly started eating. When I had to grab his hand in order to get him to turn towards me in his high chair, he would be more open to opening his mouth for a spoonful of baby food. So I wanted to share these three techniques that help my son eat.

I believe they work because they all provide some kind of sensory input that my son needs while eating. Distractions, techniques, tricks, or whatever you want to call them, these work for my son. 

By the way, if you think your child can benefit from more sensory play, check out 52 weeks of Sensory. It's a year-long list of sensory activities I created with a focus on picky eaters. Join me for lots of fun sensory play! Learn more.

And if you're looking for even more tips for how to get a toddler who eat, check out this post: How to feed a child who refuses to eat.

Three Tricks That I Use To Get My Child To Eat

Sensory Technique #1: Hold his hand.

Often times my son refuses to open his mouth or even let the fork or spoon get near his face. Instead of forcing him to eat (that would NEVER work!), I figured out a little trick: hold his hand and rub it between my fingers while I bring the food to his mouth. Like magic, he opens his mouth when I do that.

I am guessing the sensory input of having his hand squeezed distracts him from the fact that he didn't want to eat a few seconds ago. I never restrain him or hold him down, and never use force. Most of the time he doesn't even really realize that I am holding his hand, but I guess the comfort of being touched by mommy somehow makes him more OK with eating.

Some variations of this: Rub his back a little instead of holding his hand, or squeeze his shoulder a bit while bringing the food to his mouth.

Sensory Technique #2: Use my hand to feed him.

And no, this is not the same as just feeding him food with my hand. The trick is to have him bite down on the food when my fingers are still in his mouth, so he almost bites down on my fingers a bit. This way he gets the sensory input of something familiar in his mouth, something that is not immediately mushy or crunchy or crispy or salty or sweet or whatever the food might be.

This technique is a good one for getting him to try a new food without spitting it out immediately. He gets to feel and taste the food at the same time that he feels my finger in his mouth. It also works if I am trying to get him to switch foods - for example going from pasta to chicken nuggets. Or from chicken nuggets to fruit. It sounds weird, but it works.

Often times, if it's a new food or a food I know is not one of his preferred foods, he still often spits it out even if I use this technique. But there are times when this does work, so I keep this trick in mind when I have a feeling he will spit out a new food.

Sensory Technique #3: Give him a small toy to hold.

It's the same concept as a fidget cube or a fidget spinner - something small to help my son sit still, to take the focus off the fact that he has to eat, and to keep him entertained. A small car, a plastic animal from the dollar store, a stacking cup, a block, or even an extra spoon or a tupperware lid work well. Just make sure that it's something that can be washed or you don't mind getting dirty, because we all know how meals with toddlers go. 🙂

If you can make this third trick work by giving your kid an extra spoon or fork, that is ideal and preferred over another toy. Maybe one of these days your child will decide to use that fork or spoon to feed herself! In my experience any kind of pressure asking my son to feed himself will not work, so I just let him play with the spoon and stir the food around making a big mess if he wants to. 

I try to rotate through these three tricks and not make it super obvious about what I am doing. I don't say "here, hold my hand and eat" or "Oh look, wait, here's a toy for you!" I make sure there is a toy or something small to play with not too far from the table. Or I get up to get some more food for us and then casually place an extra spoon or tupperware lid on his high chair tray. 

Of course, these don't work every time. Sometimes my son is just not into sitting down and eating. But if any of these techniques work even once for your child then I consider it worthwhile to write this article. 

Sometimes all that fails and we put on Sesame Street or Mr. Rodgers on the Ipad for our son to watch while eating. He definitely sits still in his high chair much longer and eats more when he is distracted and can watch his favorite shows (not our favorite way to help him eat, but a mom's gotta do what a mom's gotta do).

Other Resources for Sensory Issues for Picky Eaters:

What techniques and tricks work for your kids?? Please share them with me in a comment below. And make sure you save this post for later on Pinterest.

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Thursday 27th of February 2020

This post could have not come at a better time! We had the same situation as you: picky eater, little weight gain. Now at 2 years old I feel screens served its purpose, but now it is time for learning how to really enjoy food. We are going to go cold Turkey and try it out. Wish us good luck! I do have a question, our daughter takes about 2 to 3 milk portions per day in her sippy cup, usually before nap and bedtime. For example, when arriving from daycare she eats, bathes, and then milk and bed. For example, if she doesn't eat, what would you recommend? I thought about cutting down the amount, so when she wakes up she would be hungry. She usually sleeps from 1 hour and half to 2 hours.

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