This is a guest post by Simone Emery, all about sensory systems and eating.
Mum of two, Simone Emery, is a feeding specialist based in Sydney, Australia. I have the good fortune to co-run the facebook group Parenting Picky Eaters with Simone, and not only is she a wonderful person, she really knows her stuff! Simone works in feeding therapy as well as offering classes for fussy eaters and their families. You can find out more about her work on her website and you can find her on twitter too.
Firstly, I wanted to say thanks to Jo for having me here today!
Secondly, I wanted to ask you to do me a favour – can you look around you and find a blank wall, a chair, a tree or the ground? Awesome. Right there is something that will help you “reset” your children for the task of eating. Today I am going to talk to you about the 7 sensory systems and exercising these systems before meals (and possibly again during meals) can help your children maintain focus on the task at hand.
The 7 sensory systems are:
- Vestibular (sense of spatial orientation)
- Proprioceptive (feedback loops for knowing how much pressure / force to exert)
Eating is one of the hardest things we have to do from a sensory system point of view. We are considering smells, touch (texture and temperature), noise and visuals all before taste. And, foods can change from bite to bite (for example a potato, pea and beef stew) or from instance to instance (a sweet blueberry vs a tart blueberry). Or even further, a food can change within the mouth – for example a hard cracker that gets mushier and mushier AND quieter and quieter as we chew. Sometimes children will compensate for this by over stuffing their mouth, taking tiny nibbles or avoiding foods with undesirable sensory properties all together. We are also motor planning and sitting at a table that also give us vestibular and proprioceptive inputs.
Pin pointing which sensory systems need resilience building for each child is not always easy. Some children will be over sensitive to some sensory inputs and under stimulated by other inputs. I like the analogy of using a “cup” to visualise how much room a child has for each input. Each child’s cup varies in size. So, I know that with myself and my children, we all have very different thresholds for our sensory processing. I have a small cup when it comes to auditory processing – I hate balloons popping! Whereas, my youngest daughter relishes the opportunities to eat noisy foods and sing at the top of her lungs outside on the trampoline. My oldest daughter re-sets marvelously by getting some big vestibular system inputs. This is why the downward dog yoga pose works well for her when we get ready to eat. If dinner starts to go pear-shaped, I will do some star-jumps with her to get some proprioceptive input and then swing her upside down for vestibular input.
So, what happened to that wall, chair, tree or ground? You can use that with your child to exercise their proprioceptive system. By pushing on something and making those mental connections between what they are doing and how much force they are exerting, they are building more resilience. This helps with building concentration and emptying their sensory cup. Ultimately, by spending some time getting some physical movement, kids are then able to process more at their next sensory onslaught (aka mealtime). This will lead to more calmly exploring new stimuli (aka foods).
In conclusion, each child has a different threshold for handling sensory inputs. Helping them prepare for new and additional sensory inputs via exercise will empty that cup a bit and give them have the room to learn.
If you've found Simone's article helpful, you may like these related posts she has written:
- Scented Play Dough and the Sensory System, Turning and Imperfect Meal Around
- Handling a Sensory Meltdown (lower thresholds because of being tired)
- Park Play Helps Fussy Eating