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Kathy Gregory
Program Director

How to Feed Your Toddler or Preschooler

November 19, 2020

Being parents and caregivers is a unique journey, with the potential for deep valleys and high mountains along the way. Every story is unique and being a Special Needs mom myself has been no exception, to say the least. I have learned so many things I never imagined needing to know and experienced joy that I never thought existed. It’s my hope that I can use my experience to help you on your journey, whether you have a special needs child or are simply embroiled in the day to day challenge of caring for the precious young children in your care. 

As my husband and I walked this journey together, one of the things we have had to tackle is managing an infant and toddler with feeding delays. Our daughter had a feeding tube, and if you have never been around a child with a feeding tube it might sound a little scary. I know we were in foreign territory as we had no experience with feeding tubes, but here we were. 

Our story starts only 72 hours after our daughter’s birth. When she was 3 days old she had 100’s of seizures which left her brain tragically damaged. One of the impacts of these seizures was a delayed development of feeding skills . After much therapy following a long NICU stay, our daughter still couldn’t quite eat enough to gain weight and was marked “failure to thrive.” At only 4 months old she had her first surgery to implant a button feeding tube. 

Throughout this journey, we have seen a number of feeding therapists and many gastroenterologists. Sometimes when I think about it I look back and think “man we are the experts now!”. It is one thing to train in school and obtain a degree to support a child with feeding issues, but it is a whole other thing to be the parent and manage it 24 hours a day because most of the hard work is done at home.  

After 2 years with a feeding tube, we were finally able to wean our daughter off the feeding tube. Now, this is not something done lightly, it took many months of sustained weight gain, much therapy, and plenty of thought and input from various doctors. 

As I reflect back I see several things that we learned along the way about feeding that I wanted to share with all of you. Regardless of whether your child currently has a feeding tube or hasn’t ever needed one, I can promise these five tips will be helpful for you as every child must go through the process of learning how to feed, and no matter what their pace, these tips will help them achieve feeding success, an essential skill to grow, develop, and thrive!  

Here are my top 5 toddler feeding tips:

1. Get Messy

One of the first things that my daughter’s feeding therapist asked me was if I ever let her get messy with food. My answer was “…well.. Sometimes..” but the truth was really, “no.” I guess I just figured that if she couldn’t self-feed then putting food on her tray was a waste of time and simply…MESSY.

What I learned however, is that children learn so much by simply playing with their food, also known as baby led weaning. Even if they can’t get food from their tray to their mouths it’s still helping them grow and develop. Contrary to what our parents may have told us, the benefits of letting your child play with their food early are so important. Early food exploration helps encourage hand-eye coordination, sensory input, and a healthy relationship with food in general. If you don’t let your little one play around and feel their food, they are missing out on important stages of development!

2. Feed Your Child From Your Plate

Kids naturally like to copy everything their parents do, and that includes eating what they eat. Our therapist always recommended feeding our daughter from our plate. This was not always easy for us because our child often couldn’t eat the same foods we were eating, but we still tried to make it work as much as we could. 

I’ll admit, we don’t always do this, but we try to do it when we can. Even if you are just sharing with them one or two bits of your plate or taking a tiny bit of their baby food from your plate, it’s a great way to use their natural inclinations to make the feeding process easier.

3. Spoon Feeding is Important

We live in the day and the age of SQUEEZE POUCHES but those very words make feeding therapists cringe. Of course, there is a time and a place for squeeze pouches, but if you want to teach your child to eat like the rest of us, spoon-feeding is such an important step. 

Learning to suck and learning to eat off a spoon are two different skills that all children must learn at some point. When you spoon-feed your child they have to pull the food off the spoon with their mouth, which is a different skill than sucking out of a pouch or bottle. Make sure to spend some time teaching spoon feeding to your child, don’t let the squeeze pouches and bottle feeding put them behind in their development. 

4. Limit wiping your babies mouth

Now, this is a funny one and something that you would probably never think of on your own. When a child is learning to eat solid foods there is so much coordination that they are learning all at once. They are learning how to chew, how to move food in their mouth from side to side, and how to swallow something other than a liquid. 

When we wipe their mouths we distract them from what they were doing. This is especially important for children with low muscle tone, but even for normally developing children it is a good policy to follow. When we just let them be messy and stop wiping them after every bit we allow them to focus on their mouth, their chew, and their coordination which will lead to further success in their personal feeding journey. Although feeding issues can be complex, there are many strategies that can be tried in order to find the solution for your particular situation. 

5. Let Them Watch You Eat

I’ll never forget our feeding therapist Ruth Ann. She would sit in front of our daughter, take a bit of what she was eating and chew in a very dramatic way. She truly believed that it is important for children to see us eating, chewing, and swallowing. Modeling to children is such a  powerful tool. When we do this we allow them to process what we are doing and they will learn from us! Of course this means we have to be extra careful that we’re not modeling the wrong things!

You can start this practice early on. Including our children in our mealtimes is something that can start even before they are eating solid foods. Making mealtimes a family event is a great habit to start and has many benefits - including making it pretty easy to let them watch you eat, or eat from your plate!

Final Notes

By no means do I know all things about feeding toddlers. Like anything else, all children and families are different and different techniques work well for some and not for others, but It’s my hope that these five tips will help you navigate weaning your child from milk (formula or breast) to self-feeding and open your eyes to some new techniques along the way.

Even if your child doesn’t have feeding troubles the process of teaching them to eat is still important. Yes, it can be time consuming and frustrating. But whether you have your own child with feeding issues or come across such children in your childcare journey, I am here to encourage you and tell you it will get better. With intention and focus, you can help children succeed in their own personal feeding journey, while becoming a better parent and teacher along the way. Just remember that in childcare it’s important to celebrate the small wins but also don’t hesitate to take time to grieve the challenges. Above all, don’t forget that you’re amazing and you got this!

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