Hi and welcome to Ask Missy Mondays where I respond to email questions from readers who have questions about behavior. Today’s question comes from a team of professionals who provide feeding therapy to children who are struggling with eating. The team writes,
“Hi Missy, we run a feeding clinic and have recently been receiving calls from a number of parents with very young children. How young is too young to start feeding therapy?”
I thought this was a great question but I wasn’t sure that I had enough information. So, I emailed back and asked them to elaborate. Specifically, what ages are the children? The team responded,
“Well, one child is 11 months old and the other child just turned 2.”
I was stunned. It broke my heart to learn that a mom was struggling with such a very young baby. My first response was that 11 month old clients are still, technically, infants. Thus, my recommendation was for the mother to seek support from her pediatrician or even mid-wife. Of course, the team should recommend a good nutritional, gastrointestinal (GI), and allergy work up. If, after all of those referrals and support, the mother still struggled with feeding, perhaps the child and parent could attend behavioral feeding sessions. However, I would want to exhaust all support services for infants before starting services that are primarily targeted for preschoolers.
We have treated several two year olds in our clinic. However, each client approached or celebrated their third birthday during clinic. Additionally, we modify our intervention strategies slightly due to their young age. There is a big developmental difference between a 34 month old and a 24 month old. So, I urged the team to use caution.
First, teams should carefully assess all participants prior to commencement of feeding therapy. This is especially true for very young children. The assessment should include a thorough record review of the medical history including assessing for any history of reflux or other GI issue. Swallowing function should be assessed by an appropriate professional. Chewing function should be assessed to ensure that the child knows how to manipulate food appropriately in his/her mouth without choking.
Given the child’s young age, the team should first establish rapport with the child so that he/she feels comfortable with each therapist. Second, the child needs to feel safe in the therapy environment. Of course, his/her parents should be present at all times. Finally, be sure to include play time before and after therapy so the child maintains positive associations with the environment. We recommend providing services in the home if possible. However, if not possible, the clinic area should be modified to meet the needs of very young toddlers.
The team should take some time to teach the child some basic compliance skills like gross motor imitation, singing songs, or playing together on the iPad. Once the child has demonstrated an ability to follow basic instructions and he/she has learned that fun things happen following compliance, then it is safe to begin therapy.
Staff should take care to utilize child-friendly approaches during feeding therapy. Staff should never trick the child to eat or sneak food in when he/she is not looking. Staff should, instead, focus on teaching the child to tolerate new foods and to pair new foods with reinforcers such as hugs, cheers, high 5s, and even songs or games on the iPad.
Good luck helping those very young children. We know that the sooner you start, the better the long-term outcome. Please keep us posted on their progress. We know they are in good hands!
If you have a behavior question that you need assistance on, please email: askmissy at appliedbehavioralstrategies dot com.