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Safety and mealtimes...what do I do?

We already know that our children need to BE safe when eating/drinking but we tend to forget whether they "FEEL" safe with eating and drinking.


As a newborn, eating is a reflex however it becomes a learned skill as we grow and 'take over' the reflex. We learn how to drink breastmilk, formula, and/or both through the experience. We learn to coordinate the suck, swallow, and breathe pattern. When there is a disruption in the coordination, our bodies will respond to keep us "safe".


Have you ever gagged, choked, and/or coughed while eating or drinking?


How did your body respond?

Do you remember it clearly thinking back to it?

Do you remember what caused it? Have you tried again since?


You most likely reacted and your body focused on feeling "safe" again. You spit out your food, got your breath back, and/or you decided that you would no longer eat the rest of that food. Your priority was to "feel" safe again.


Some children have experienced many situations like the one described above. Some children have been able to overcome/adapt to their foods/drinks to ensure they remain "safe".


Over time, some children will require assistance to help overcome the stressful scenarios they have experienced. Those experiences created a "story" for them around food/liquids.


They may feel "triggered" around certain foods/liquids that have caused negative experiences in the past. They might avoid certain foods, refuse to eat new foods, and/or remain "stuck" on their comfort foods which might not provide enough nutrition as their bodies are growing.


When your goal is for them to try new foods....then your child and their nervous system needs to "feel" safe first.


When we feel ´safe ‘, we can learn and start to make changes.


When we want to ask our kids to try new foods, we need to observe and determine if that child’s nervous system is feeling ´safe, regulated, and connected.



Here are a few thoughts on how you can help your child:


  • Feel safe and regulated yourself first! As a busy parent, you are juggling many daily tasks, expectations, and demands. You need to feel good in your body/mind because you are teaching your child how to feel around food.


  • If you don't feel safe and connected first, it's hard to help someone else feel safe and connected too.


  • Include calming activities for everyone! (especially yourself, see point above). What helps calm you? What is helpful in calming your child before meals? Is it music? Is it jokes? 1-to-1 time with them to simply BE PRESENT with them? deep breathing? quieter/less distracting environment? little exercise for everyone? (Cosmic yoga on youtube? GoNoodle dancing on youtube?..maybe?). We might all need calming activities individually but it can also be helpful to do them together. You can model to them what a calming activity looks like.


  • Observe your environment and take notes. You might need to free up your space, declutter the table, declutter the counter, reduce the number of distractions, etc. You might notice that your child does better eating with fewer or more people at the table. Some children can't handle "hearing" or "seeing" other people chew their food near them. Your child may have trouble sitting at the table. Do they tend to fall over at the table? You might need to make some adjustments to the seating.


  • When we want to see a change in our child's mealtimes, start with "feeling safe" then you can branch out and experiment with food play and exploration.


There are many layers to feeding and helping our nervous system feel balanced when we experiencing stressors/triggers is optimal for long term change.


Talk with a therapist about how to include more regulating activities pre and post-mealtimes to support a positive experience.


You can check out my previous blog posts on calming techniques, building stronger relationship between adult & child, and general advise on regulation for ourselves and our children.


If you have more specific questions around feeding therapy, you can reach me at newleafoccupationaltherapy@gmail.com


We offer 30 min phone call/virtual session to answer any questions you may have. Our website has a link to sign up for this FREE call.


Thanks for taking the time to read this.


Jessica Earle, Occupational Therapist 👩🏻



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