Sensory Food Aversion


  “SENSORY FOOD AVERSION – is one of the most common feeding disorders during the first 3 years of life”. That special time when kids learn to eat by themselves  and work out “doing it my way” with their parents and caregivers.

  In the article, “Sensory Food Aversion  In Infants and Toddlers”, Dr. Irene Chatoor of the Children’s  National Medical Center, discusses the importance of distinguishing between kids with minor food aversions (“picky eaters”) and those whose reluctance to eat becomes a serious feeding problem. She describes a child with sensory aversion as having seven characteristics, including:

  • hypersensitivity,
  • onset during introduction to a new food,
  • reaction being negative,
  • reluctance to try new foods,
  • dietary deficiencies,
  • food refusal does not follow a traumatic event,
  • food refusal not related to allergy or other medical illness.

Children with sensory food issues can show signs in infancy related to latching on the breast, sensitivity to switching formulas, but most commonly between 6-10 months of age, when they are exposed to a variety of foods. The most intense period is during the toddler years, when issues of independence are also at stake. Most toddlers vary from day to day on what they want to eat or reject. But kids with sensory aversion issues, are more consistent in their food choices. They will go for days without eating, if parents try to be strict. They become more anxious and tension builds for everyone in the family around mealtimes. They often refuse food from whole food categories, such as meats, fruits and vegetables. Hypersensitivity in other sensory areas such as touch, sound, smell can also co-exist. Daily activities such as:

  • getting their hands messy
  • tooth brushing,
  •  wearing socks or certain clothing,
  • coping with noisy environments or loud sounds
  • smells (cooking foods, scents)
  • bright light, sunshine

are  diffficult for them to cope with as well.

What works??

  • Repeated exposure within child’s level of tolerance. Find the point at which the child can tolerate interacting with the food. Is it looking at it from a distance? Is it accepting it on the table? Is it holding it with a spoon?
  • Parents can model how to eat new foods and wait for the toddler to ask to try it.
  • Peer modelling. If their buddies are eating it, a child may be more willing to try new foods.
  • Scheduled meal and snack times (discourage grazing throughout the day). Come to the table hungry!
  • Drink milk at meals. Water in between.
  • Parents decide what to serve while the child decides how much to eat. (Ellyn Satter – “How to Feed Your Child, But Not Too Much”)
  • Offer at least one preferred choice of the child’s along with what the family is eating.

written by Irma Coumantarakis


article referenced by  DR. IRENE CHATOOR,  ZERO TO THREE, 2009.

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