The link between sensory sensitivities and anxiety in fussy/picky eating

We totally get it – your child physically recoils at the sight of new foods, gags if you ask them to try something as small as a pea, or needs to gulp back juice after certain foods to cope with the flavour. You’re likely wondering how you can help your child to enjoy new foods when it seems like trying a different brand of cracker is as disgusting as eating a live worm!

Knowing how fussy eating develops in the first place is the first step to finding the solutions that help support your child’s individual needs and unique characteristics. Fussy eating is rarely due to one cause or event, but it tends to develop from a lot of different factors that interact in complex ways - like a web of different things that come together to lead your child to eat in the way that they do.

What have we found?

At Sprout, we’ve seen a clear link between children’s sensory preferences and anxiousness. In other words, when children score ‘high’ on sensory preferences using our Picky Profile Tool (

Picky Profile
), we have noticed that they are also more likely than others to score ‘high’ on anxiety. This anxiety may show up around food - such as fear of trying new foods or being tense, distressed, or withdrawn at mealtimes. It’s also common for anxiety to show up in different ways - for instance children may have worries about school, friends, other childhood fears, or excessively ruminate over past or future events.

Backed by Science

Luckily, researchers are making good headway in helping us to understand these patterns, so that we can continue to better support children and families who experience picky eating due to sensory differences and anxiety. What we’ve observed here at Sprout mirrors the findings of research studies reporting that being more sensitive to sensory information (like tastes and smells) explains why more anxious children are also more likely to be picky eaters (Farrow & Coulthard, 2012; Zickgraf & Elkins 2018).

Why is this the case?

In basic terms, anxiety is our protective system - designed to help us flee or defend ourselves in a threatening situation. This is often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. It makes sense that when our anxiety system kicks into action, we need to be very alert to our surroundings so that we can respond quickly to pounce or hide from a threat or attacker. A hungry bear, or a small piece of carrot - very different to you, but your child’s protective system may not be able to tell the difference!

The relationship between sensory sensitivity and anxiety may also be explained by learned experience. When a child is naturally sensitive to tastes, smells and textures, they may be more likely to have negative experiences with strong bitter flavours and unpleasant textures that trigger a gag reflex. It’s possible that these unpleasant experiences may lead to more anxiety about trying foods in future.

What can you do?

As highlighted by an interview study (Cunliffe and colleagues, 2022), the lived experience of parenting a child with sensory sensitivities and picky eating is far from easy - leading to battles for control, a big impact on food prep and mealtimes, as well as stigma and disapproval from others such as relatives and medical professionals who just don’t get it!

So, what can you do to support your child if they baulk at the sight of new foods and don't let anything pass their lips? Understanding the link between anxiety and sensory sensitivity, it makes sense to focus on helping them feel safe first. While your child is defending themselves against a perceived threat (like a carrot!), they will find it even more challenging to tolerate the sights, smells and tastes of foods - further adding to this cycle of avoidance.

Some ways you can help your child to feel safe include:

· Regularly provide their accepted foods at meals and snacks so they know they can reliably fill up

· Let them know that they don’t have to try anything and no-one will make them taste anything

· Take a break from trying to introduce new foods - give your child’s nervous system a chance to rest

· Avoid asking your child to try anything - and trust that their curiosity will gradually grow when they feel safe

To sum up

Does this describe your child? Build your own Picky Profile here (https://eatwithsprout.com/product/picky-profile) to find out. If your child is one of these kids who flatly refuses to taste anything and seems disgusted by the smell or sight of a food, let’s start by creating a space where they feel safe.

When the focus is on feeling safe and relaxed, rather on trying new foods, you may start to notice changes like less gagging while eating, less comments about food smells, and more voluntary glances towards new foods. That’s when you’ll know you’ve turned a corner!

References

Cunliffe, L., Coulthard, H., & Williamson, I. R. (2022). The lived experience of parenting a child with sensory sensitivity and picky eating. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 18(3), e13330.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mcn.13330

Farrow, C. V., & Coulthard, H. (2012). Relationships between sensory sensitivity, anxiety and selective eating in children. Appetite, 58(3), 842-846.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666312000189

Zickgraf, H. F., Richard, E., Zucker, N. L., & Wallace, G. L. (2022). Rigidity and sensory sensitivity: Independent contributions to selective eating in children, adolescents, and young adults. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology , 51(5), 675-687.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666318304549

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