In my practice, I see many little toddlers and preschoolers who come to me and aren’t speaking or aren’t speaking as clearly as they should for their age. Many times I find out that this little one is also a picky eater, meaning they limit their diet to a few favorite foods, most of them consisting of processed, starchy foods (i.e. goldfish, graham crackers, veggie straws, which have tricked all of us into thinking they’re a decent substitute for spinach.)
How do feeding and speech/language development go together? Although the areas in the brain that control feeding and speech are different, these systems work together dynamically. Studies show that many of the little ones who have challenges with saying their speech sounds and developing their language also have challenges in chewing fresh and fibrous food. This isn’t only because they don’t like the taste of these foods, but may also be because they don’t have the motor control to manage the chewing of these foods. Being the intuitive little people that they are, they reject what they know they can’t manage. Or they may be saying no to these foods because they’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past with chewing certain textures and don’t want to repeat those experiences. We all know how important fresh and fibrous foods are for our health. With these simple activities you can expose them to healthier foods while also supporting their speech and language development. Here’s how you can use a simple trip to the grocery store to support your child’s growth in speech, language, and feeding!
Increase your child’s exposure to healthy, fresh fibrous foods. On the days though when you have a little extra time, use it as an opportunity to teach your child about new foods and explore. Stroll around the grocery store and pick up, smell, tap on the food. More exposure to food and exploration around food can increase your child’s ability eventually make that food part of his diet. Let your child make some choices between which fruits and vegetables he would like to take home. Offer some that you know he likes (i.e. maybe the bananas) as well as one or two new ones that he may not try at home– this time. But by exposing him to these foods and letting him have a choice in them, eventually he’s more likely to take that bite of broccoli sooner rather than later.
Talk about the food. This is a great way to increase your child’s language, both receptive and expressive. Talk about which foods are hard and which ones are soft. Compare the rough fruits with the smooth ones and teach which ones are small and which ones are big. Use a lot of repetition when teaching words that your child doesn’t quite understand. The sky’s the limit when it comes to describing the foods at your grocery store.
Chew, chew, chew. If your child is at an age when they’re eating solid foods safely, encourage more of those crunchy foods- the jicama, the apple slices, the carrot sticks. Crunchy foods are a great way to get the structures that are also used for speech moving and working. The lips, jaw, and tongue get a much better workout when chomping on crunchy foods than when eating the processed, quickly dissolved crackers and cookies that so many little ones are hooked on.If your child avoids crunchy, fresh foods altogether, limits his food to less than twenty different foods, becomes very upset when being offered new foods, then it’s a good idea to consult your pediatrician who can help you find a feeding specialist (speech therapist or occupational therapist).
Supporting your child’s development in these areas takes time and persistence but through simple activities that you can do during your daily routine, your child can get a ton of practice!
(**The advice in this article is not intended to substitute medical advice. Should you have concerns regarding your child’s speech, language, or feeding please consult with your pediatrician.)
Becky Green is a speech and feeding therapist who serves clients in the San Jose area. For more information or for a free fifteen-minute phone consultation, visit Becky at www.greenspeechtherapy.com