Is your child a difficult eater?

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Tips for Eating with Our SEVEN Senses – Part Three: Vestibular and Proprioceptive Systems

Written on 2015/07/16 by:  Melanie Potock


In Part One and Two on Eating with Our SEVEN Senses, we explored the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch and even sound – discussing how each sensory pathway influences a child’s behavior and willingness to try new foods.  Today, we’ll explore the vestibular and proprioception systems – two sensory pathways that influence our ability to eat in very surprising ways!

The Vestibular System

Imagine this: You’re sitting on a bar stool with no back or foot support.  The muscles in your trunk are working overtime to maintain balance while you sit and enjoy a sandwich.  Your ability to bring the food to your mouth, bite, chew and swallow is dependent on how strong your abdominal and back muscles are and how well you can balance.

Thank goodness for our vestibular system!  This hidden system, buried deep in our inner ear, keeps us upright and balanced and upright, especially when we are challenged by inadequate seating, like a bar stool.  Now consider the plastic booster seat and your toddler.  It’s essentially the same situation – it’s a bit taxing to sit in that position for too long without support.  Plus, if your child’s vestibular system is not ideal and balance is not their forte, it’s especially difficult to enjoy eating.

Here are two articles that explain further, offering strategies for positioning in the feeding chair and more:

  1. How the Inner Ear Helps Kids Try New Foods.
  2. Picky Eaters in the Preschool Classroom: 7 Tips for Teachers.

The Proprioceptive System

A child’s sense of proprioception refers to his own awareness of where his body is in space.  Nerves traveling from joints and muscles tell the brain how much effort to exert as we move our limbs through space, picking up a fork to stab a piece of carrot and bring the food to our lips.  Without a good sense of proprioception, it’s easy to accidently smash the carrot with too much pressure or worse, stab oneself in the cheek!  Learn more by reading How to Not Stick a Fork Up Your Nose.

Sensory Processing Disorder

If you child is experiencing difficulty processing sensory stimuli and either under or over-reacting to various sensations, it will likely impact their willingness to try new foods.  In our book Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater, we highlight just some of the signs of sensory processing challenges:

  • Shudders, gags, or vomits when attempting to try certain foods
  • Avoids specific types of food (e.g., purées or chewy foods)
  • Is fearful of trying new foods
  • Insists on only eating certain brands of food
  • Is unable to eat or does not eat well unless at home
  • Limits self to food at a specific temperature
  • Prefers bland foods and refuses most savory or intense flavors
  • Craves intense flavors
  • Over-chews food
  • Under-chews food and attempts to swallow large pieces
  • Requires liquids to swallow most bites of food
  • Under-reacts to hot and/or spicy foods
  • Overreacts or under-reacts to odors
  • Consistently “slumps” at the table or is unable to stay in seat
  • Has difficulty achieving gross or fine motor skill milestones (see page 000), especially those related to eating

If you have concerns about your child’s ability to try new foods, talk with your pediatrician about referring your infant, toddler or older child for a feeding evaluation.  You can learn more via these articles for Friendship Circle of Michigan:

  1. Signs That Your Infant May Benefit from Feeding Therapy.
  2. Signs That Your Toddler May Benefit from Feeding Therapy.
  3. Signs That Your Older Child May Benefit from Feeding Therapy.
  4. Ten Things You Should Know about Feeding Therapy.

Pediatrician Nimali Fernando, MD MPH and feeding specialist Melanie Potock, MA CCC-SLP are the co-authors of Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook.  A stage-by-stage guide to setting your child on the path to adventurous eating, their book offers tips for all children and for all parents!  Dr. Fernando is the founder of The Doctor Yum Project, a non-profit focused on creating a culture of wellness for families across the country. Melanie is the founder of My Munch Bug and an international speaker and media consultant on the topic of kids, food and hesitant eating.  Together, they teach children to become food explorers! Learn more at

Melanie Potock
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP is a certified speech language pathologist, a national speaker on the topic of picky eating, and the author of the award winning parenting book,  Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food! With over 15 years’ experience treating children with feeding difficulties, Mel’s approach to developing feeding skills includes the fundamentals of parenting in the kitchen, such as how to avoid mealtime debates and creating more joyful mealtimes, even with a hesitant eater. She has also produced the award winning children’s CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food as a tool to keep mealtimes joyful and family centered.  Connect with Melanie at My Munch Bug on facebook and twitter or email her at [email protected].

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