I know you’ve heard the advice: you have to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables if you want your child to eat them too.  But what if you eat plenty of apples and carrots in front of your kid, but he refuses to bite? Well, a new study out of England shows that something else might be going on.  It’s called Sensory Sensitivity.

Sensory Sensitivity refers to degree to which people notice changes in sensory stimuli.  People who are considered “sensitive” perceive and react to very small changes in the way something looks or feels.  For instance, they react to small changes in heat or light.

When it comes to eating there are four sensory dimensions that people respond to — how something looks, how it feels, how it tastes and how it smells.  If your child is highly sensitive to any of these sensory experiences than small changes in the food you serve can lead to a big response.  Some extremely sensitive kids simply won’t budge.  So what should you do?

Well, you’ll probably be tempted to respect your child’s sensitivity by only providing foods that fall within the acceptable range of tastes, textures, smells or appearances, but that is the one thing you should absolutely not do.  I know, you want to serve food your child likes and will eat because you don’t want him going hungry, but here’s the problem: if you only serve (or primarily serve) foods that are to your child’s liking, you will reinforce (and probably narrow) the range of foods he’ll accept.

Instead, figure out which aspect of the food your child is sensitive to (making sure that it’s not really a control issue you are dealing with) and then develop a plan to incrementally expose your child to foods that vary on this dimension.

Let’s say you figure out your child likes saucy foods such as apple sauce, yogurt, tomato sauce, etc. and rejects lumpy foods.  Here’s how you could work with yogurt to expand what your child eats.  Start by giving your child the yogurt she enjoys.  Then, you gradually add apple sauce to it so it has a little more texture. Next add small pieces of cut up apple.  Reduce the amount of yogurt.  Eventually you increase the size of the apple pieces, and decrease the amount of yogurt, until your child will eat the apple.  When you’re child accepts apple, introduce another fruit that has a similar texture.

You can start with any food your child likes.  Parents are often quite successful starting with a baby food their child likes, then making a prepared baby food of the same flavor from home because it will have a slightly different texture, gradually add chunkier bits to the food until your child is off the puree entirely.

If your child is quite young and resists, then retreat and make the changes even smaller.  If your child is a bit older than encourage him to feel the food with his hand or to put it in his mouth.  Give him permission not to swallow it.

It takes time so you are going to have to be patient, but, I’m sad to report, you don’t have much choice.  The only way to get a sensorily sensitive children to eat a wider range of foods is to teach them to appreciate a wider range of sensory experiences.

Exposure.  Exposure.  Exposure.  It’s the only known way to increase the range of foods your child likes and eats.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.

P.S.  The article I am referring to is: Coulthard, Helen and Jackie Blissett. 2009. “Fruit and vegetable consumption in children and their mothers. Moderating effects of child sensory sensitivity.” Appetite 52:410-415.