Monday, September 21, 2009

Snacks for Toddlers with Oral-Motor Problems

My 15 month old son is a big snacker! He loves fruit, veggies, crackers, cookies, & pasta for snacks! He gets a mid-morning snack and a mid-afternoon snack. I make sure that I get the snacks down to a size, texture, and resistance that he can easily chew and swallow without me worrying about him choking. I have evaluated his oral-motor skills and have recently felt fine with giving him larger pieces of food than I had in the past. I still cut fruit into diced pieces or chunks, but just not as small as I previously did. Although I have introduced using the spoon to him, he mostly uses his fingers to feed himself.

Snacktime takes a little more thought when your toddler has oral-motor problems such as can't keep mouth closed while chewing, "pockets" food in the cheeks or roof of mouth, sucks food til its mushy to avoid chewing, overstuffs mouth or hordes, swallows food whole because of poor tongue mobility and jaw movements, and chokes easily. Or maybe your toddler has oral-sensory problems such as can't feel food on face or within mouth (might overstuff or pocket), chews and swallows better with high-taste (spicy, tart, etc) than low-taste foods, hyper-active gag reflex, or is a picky eater due to tactile sensitivities. When preparing simple snacks for your toddler consider some of the following things:

  • If he is a picky-eater and you want to introduce new foods, try foods that are similar in texture, taste (sweet, sour/tart, bland, salty, spicy) to other foods he already likes. For example, if he always eats Fuji apples, then try Gala or Braeburn apples as opposed to a very different taste such as a tart Grannysmith apple. If he likes regular saltine crackers, then offer him whole wheat saltine crackers. If you veer too far from what he likes, then he may not try other new foods you offer him. Slowly add new choices.
  • If he is a picky-eater, introduce new foods that are similar in texture to the ones he already prefers. Textures: crunchy, puree (e.g. pudding, yogurt), mushy, liquidy (soup), slimy, mixed ( e.g. casseroles), etc
  • Offer him foods of temperatures that he prefers. For example, if he prefers cold foods, then give hime fruit that has been refrigerated instead of at room temperature
  • Don't continue to offer him baby food once he is a toddler. Applesauce, pudding, and yogurt are fine to offer. Get the message across that he is "a big boy" or that she is "a big girl"
  • Cut up any circular foods into a different shape to lessen the chance of choking. I cut grapes into 6 rectangular-type shapes.
  • Consider the amount of calories. Maybe a bowl of mixed fruit could have a few avocado diced pieces snuck in. Avocado is very high in fat...the good kind. Many children with oral-motor problems don't get the amount of calories they really need. Also, sprinkling carnation instant breakfast (R) packets over ice cream is a good snack that also packs in the vitamins.
  • Offer some foods that will make him work harder so that he can gain endurance, but make some foods easy to consume to help with caloric intake. You don't want the child to think every snack is a therapy session or he will start to act up in order to avoid it. One approach is to have the child eat the foods that are harder for him for 1/3 of the snack and then consume the easier foods for 2/3. For example, offer him 3 Ritz (R) crackers with one of them topped with crumpled ground meat.
  • If the speech or occupational therapist that is working with your child showed you some "mouth exercises' to do before mealtime, then do them. One common one I suggest for toddlers with low muscle tone is to use vibration to "wake-up" the muscles. You can use a vibrating toothbrush to rub on the inside of the cheeks, gums, and tongue. Then let him eat. Then, use the vibrating toothbrush to actually brush hi teeth once the meal is over.
  • Look at a great website for many suggestions on food, the environment at mealtime, exercises and much more on feeding at The site is hosted by a well-known speech and language pathologist. The section titled "information papers" and "feed your mind" is where I have found loads of handouts to give parents that are written in easy to understand language.
  • Some young children with feeding problems have sensory processing problems. To see "red flags" for sensory processing problems, visit
  • Remember to perform all of the exercises the physical and/or occupational therapist gave you to help your child's head and trunk balance. This is so important for sitting balance in order for the child to have good throat alignment to not choke.

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