I have a lot of therapy strategies up my sleeve when it comes to pediatric feeding disorders. Some of them include fancy positioning equipment, oral-motor devices, stretches, and textured teething toys. Some of my strategies even require that I become "certified" just to use them. Yet, the most effective strategy that I have found so far is to show up during family meal or snack time for children and during a scheduled bottle feeding for infants. It sounds SO simple, but it works!
For many of the children I work with they can perform a certain skill such as munching a soft diced vegetable if I was to give them just a couple of pieces in between some mouth exercises at a time in which they were not even hungry. They might even be able to hold a spoon if we practiced scooping up toys out of a sand box while we are playing in their room. But that doesn't mean they have the muscular endurance and sensory processing abilities to chew three different foods on the plate while using utensils to feed themselves. It is hard for many children with feeding disorders to handle more than one food due to the various flavors, temperatures, resistances, and textures. Additionally, they may be able to chew the food, swallow the drink, and manipulate the cup and utensils when sitting alone, but can't handle it when there are more people present. Why is that? Well, every child may have a different reason, and I am not going to know "why" unless I directly observe the meal within the natural setting: family meal time. If that isn't possible, then I observe snack time.
What does family meal time look like? It is different for everyone. I tell the families to set everything up as if I wasn't there. The meal may occur in front of the TV on the couch with one of the three siblings next to the child I am working with or it may occur at the dining room table with every household member present. I just want to see what naturally occurs during the meal time routine...there is no right or wrong. For some children they may not be able to participate in family meal time because of the noise level. For others it might be that they are sitting too close to a sibling that keeps inadvertently touching them. Even after I observe family meal time, I may still not know why the child is having difficulty with eating. That is when I watch the child eat a variety of foods while he is alone. If I figure it out, then we may work on specific skills separate from meal time, but even then the intention is to include the child in family meal time. Some children may need some 1:1 work with oral motor exercises, fine motor play, a "sensory diet", and other strategies immediately prior to family meal.
For those kids who can't handle eating with their family, maybe they could at least sit and socialize or just "be" there, even if they have to eat before or after everyone else. Just "being" with everyone else at the table might be the only way a medically-involved or tube-fed child can participate, and that is okay.
It breaks my heart when I find out that the child with the feeding disorder is not included in any form or fashion just because he has a feeding disorder. If the child's sensory processing abilities don't allow him to be with the rest of the family, then maybe he could help with meal preparation or setting the table.
For babies with feeding disorders, I show up for occupational therapy at one of their scheduled feedings and watch the parent (or caregiver) feed the child. I offer suggestions if needed. I may follow up with stretches and ideas for pacing, positioning, burping, and nipple/bottle changes. If the child is having alot of problems, then I may feed the child. But the problem with that is that babies that are oral feeders get usually 6-8 bottles a day and I am not going to be present for all of those feedings! So, the natural routine of the meal is going to be the adult holding the baby (or placing them in a device) while feeding him. Sometimes I do the first half of the feeding process for training purposes, and then after the baby has burped I will have the parent try to do the same things I did. After all, feeding your baby is the most basic thing that every parent wants to do successfully!
I guess my biggest "take home point" from this blog entry today is try to work with the child within the natural routines. If the strategies given to the family aren't meaningful to them and feel like extra work, then they will not work on them between the therapy visits. On the other hand, if the strategies are purposeful and occur within routines they already have, then the family is more likely to use the therapist's ideas.