Three Bad Tips for Feeding Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Children

Nov 23, 2010 by

ORALLY HYPERSENSITIVE children are not your typical picky eaters. — photo by Anna Migeon

Amy, age 8, will only eat a few things: little beyond a certain brand of macaroni and cheese, bean and cheese tacos, very smooth mashed potatoes and apple sauce put through the blender again.

As a baby Amy had trouble sucking. She grew slowly. She finds most foods too salty, spicy, lumpy or gritty, or even too hot or cold. She abhors all toothpaste. Once she threw up when she licked a sticker. She screams at the dentist. If she tries something she can’t swallow, it triggers a higher level of resistance, even to what she would normally eat.

Diagnosed as “hypersensitive to oral input,”  or “orally defensive,” Amy isn’t your run-of the-mill picky eater. It’s not her parents’ fault. It’s not all in her head, but rather in neurological differences in her brain. She is physically, clinically, more sensitive to what goes in her mouth than the average child. Also known as “supertasters,” children like Amy sense and respond more intensely than the typical child.

Amy’s parents dread visits to the doctor, where they hear that she needs to eat more and get more fruits and vegetables, and how she’s deficient in various nutrients.

They’ve pushed her to eat since she was born. Pushing has never worked, so their strategy, based on expert advice, was to do more of it.

Let’s look at some of the tips Amy’s parents were given, and how doing just the opposite is likely to get better results.

1.   “Make an incentive chart to get her to eat.”

Imagine how you’d feel if you gagged easily over food, and someone is there, always urging, pressuring you to put certain things in your mouth. Even for children of easy-going temperament, pressure to do  what is physically repulsive to you probably just makes you want to do it even less. But for a child who is oversensitive, wouldn’t it just makes a tough situation worse?

My friend Cynthia, a normal adult, told me how she once went out to eat with a guy who, instead of letting her choose her own meal, ordered for her. When the crab came, she told him, “Oh, I’m allergic to crab.” But, she told me, “I love crab.” Like children do, she was asserting her own ability to choose for herself.

When Amy, unlike Cynthia, starts out actually not wanting to eat the food in question, think how much more resistance arm-twisting can create. Children don’t like to be over-controlled any more than adults. We all like our freedom. A reward for eating might get Amy to eat something different — this time — but only decreases her desire to eat it in the future. She may want the reward, but turn out resenting what she has to do to get it all the more.

Eating is not behavior, good or bad. Even oversensitive children come equipped with their own motivation to eat: hunger. That’s what we need to leverage. Pressure doesn’t increase the drive to eat; it kills it, especially for the child with difficulties in eating.

The pressure and manipulation of an incentive chart also reinforces the idea that eating is an unpleasant task and makes the eating environment even less positive. It makes for added tension and resistance.

2.   “Put fruit and vegetables on her plate consistently.”

Again, pushing only aggravates the problem. Instead, just put the food on the table. Children can and should be required to join the family at the table and behave, but never pushed eat. Let them take the initiative and decide what goes on their own plates and in their mouths. No pressure. Let hunger, and nothing else, lead the way.

Children who are urged to eat risk becoming like Cynthia with the crab, or like the wild mice who were brought into the lab and trained to turn on their own light and running wheel. If a human turned on their light or wheel, the mice would exercise “foolish freedom” and turn them off, even to their own detriment.

Even more than the average child, the hypersensitive child needs to feel free and unpressured at the table. Let her ask for what she wants. Once a child feels safe from urging, that is the best hope of her being open to trying something new.

3.    “Focus on making her just try things.”

The best chance of Amy eating is her coming to the table hungry, seeing and smelling the food from a safe distance, and feeling her own prompting to put it in her mouth. Let the food sell itself. Messages of “you should” and “you have to” alert her and put her on the defensive. Parents of a hypersensitive child have enough natural resistance to contend with; the last thing they need is extra resistance that arises directly due to their own pushing.

Any child, even an orally defensive child, will naturally come to food on her own because she is hungry. Studies show that children are more likely to eat something at first and again later if they are allowed to approach the food of their own free will.

It is better to pull food away, let her see that she needs to pursue the food if she is hungry, rather than defend herself against it. Orally defensive children especially need to be in control what’s coming toward their mouths. They will be hungry and they will figure out something they can manage to eat on their own.  Restrict access to food you don’t want her to eat, provide only good choices, and allow her desire for good food to build. That’s all the pressure she needs, from within.


Related posts:

Three More Bad Tips for Feeding the Hypersensitive Child

How to Use “Negative Reverse Selling” at the Dinner Table

Foolish Freedom: Why Some Kids Refuse to Eat Even to the Point of Harming Themselves


  1. […] my daughter was orally defensive.  That meant that she didn’t really enjoy how things felt in her mouth.  She liked food to […]