Children who hesitate when it comes to eating are learning that food can be fun thanks to a series of classes at Topeka’s Capper Foundation.
First children get their bodies ready to learn by engaging in gross motor activities like climbing, swinging and balancing, said Lakyn Habinger, lead feeding therapist for the program.
“We then transition to hand-washing, bubbles at the table and setting the table (with plates and napkins),” she said. “Foods are then offered one at a time and are explored for a few minutes before moving on to the next food.”
Eating the food isn’t necessarily on the agenda.
“We do not put pressure on the kids to eat the foods,” said occupational therapist Amy Douglas. “We want them to get more and more comfortable with food in front of them, then touching it and eventually bringing it to their mouths without any stress.”
Children’s classes are built on a hierarchy of interaction
The class measures success by a child’s ability to move up a six-step hierarchy developed by Kay Toomey, a pediatric psychologist who has worked for 25 years with children who have issues with eating.
The first step is tolerating the presence of foods in the room, in children’s spaces and on their plates. The second step is interacting with foods. Smelling foods is the third step, and touching foods is the fourth.
Then comes tasting, the fifth step. The sixth step is eating.
Habinger presents the foods as a form of play.
“For example, when I present scrambled eggs, they are not just scrambled eggs. We transform them into monkeys jumping on the bed,” she said. “We sing the song while we interact with the food in different ways.
“I will direct the play based on the level of a child’s readiness. Some kids are only ready to touch the food with their finger, some can touch it to their lips, and some are ready to eat.”
Children with pediatric feeding disorders can have great anxiety when it comes to seeing, touching or eating food. Appetites can become nonexistent in response.
“Therefore, in order for the children to learn about and accept new foods, we must create a playful and joyful experience,” she said.
Parents have their own classes in a separate room
Linda Burgen, a board-certified behavioral analyst, is in charge of helping parents in a separate room.
“This program is valuable and supportive to families as well as their children,” Burgen said. “We all learn from the experiences of others. We want to help build the child’s ‘can do’ attitude as well as help families enjoy their interactions with their child.”
Amanda Anderson is taking the classes along with her 5-year-old son Nolan Anderson, who has Down syndrome. Nolan has a twin sister Gabby.
Nolan has had to play catch-up since his feeding tube was taken out in November 2021.
Currently on pureed foods, Nolan has a healthy appetite and enjoys bold flavors like garlic and Mexican food that her husband Justin Anderson is fond of preparing. The food just ends up in the blender before making it to his plate.
Nolan Anderson’s next obstacle is eating solids, and Burgen is helping the family create an environment for that to happen.
“She basically teaches us different ways to approach giving your children different foods, that a lot of it needs to be play,” said Amanda Anderson. “She will tell you to take a cheese puff and use it as a caterpillar, and bounce it on your arm, or swinging a spaghetti noodle around. We do that a lot.”
Amanda Anderson said she also learned about food portion sizes.
“So Nolan is 5. He would get five tablespoons of chicken or five tablespoons of carrots,” she said. “That’s something that I did not know. Another thing they tell you is they really want you to be at a table setting with your family.
“So him watching his sister, I think, helped tremendously.”
The Anderson family is looking toward a bright future
Gabby attends some of the therapy sessions with her brother and parents.
“So she will try to do those things at home based off what she sees us do at therapy,” Amanda Anderson said.
And Gabby then told her mother, “When I grow up, I want to work in the hospital, so I can take care of kids like Nolan,” Amanda Anderson said. “It just melted my heart.”
Amanda Anderson’s daughter Ciana, who will turn 14 on Monday, also wants to pursue a career helping children like her brother.
“She wants to work in the NICU based on all that sprung on her when she was in fourth grade, and Nolan came along,” Amanda Anderson said.
She sees a bright future for her son, who she described as outgoing, lovable, stubborn and ornery, with a smile that “lights up a room.”
“I believe that he will at some point live on his own, hold a job and do everything that we do,” she said. “It just takes a little bit longer, but I think that he will eventually get there.”
Kids with special needs have a resource in Capper’s
Amanda Anderson advised parents of children with special needs not to give up if faced with her situation.
“There are resources out there, such as Capper, that will help you to learn those day-to-day activities that they need to do,” she said.
Douglas, the occupational therapist, said when a child begins to eat, or adds a new food to their diet, it is a huge deal.
“It is important from a nutrition standpoint but also for sensory integration,” she said. “Typically, if a child eats one crunchy food, for example, you can begin to introduce more similar foods slowly. The parents get very excited as well, which is rewarding.”
Amanda Anderson said she is grateful for the program.
“I would just definitely say, if you have a child that is struggling with any type of eating disorder, definitely reach out to them,” she said. “So far, the program has been great. I learned a lot and that food play is good.”
Catheryn Hrenchir is a feature writer for The Topeka-Capital Journal. She can be reached at [email protected] or (785) 817-6383.