Picky eating, also known as “food selectivity”, is a condition that has gained popularity in current research and has demonstrated applied behavior analysis, or ABA, as an effective intervention (Silbaugh, et al., 2019). It is important to differentiate food selectivity and feeding disorders, the latter of which being a more complex condition that requires a multi-disciplinary approach to treating as it often has underlying medical component.
Food selectivity is a learned pediatric condition that does not lead to concerns with growth or nutritional deficits (Silbaugh, et al., 2019). It is characterized by a child’s willingness to eat only certain types, textures, or brands of food or parents will be met with maladaptive feeding time behaviors, such as gagging, spitting, packing, or expulsion of food (Silbaugh, et al., 2019).
This type of learned behavior can best be addressed by a BCBA within the Applied Behavior Analysis field.
If you find yourself battling mealtimes with a picky eater, behavior analysis through a BCBA can help! Here are some common situations you may find yourself in with your child and how a BCBA can help overcome these challenges.
Challenge – Child refuses to take bites of a new or non-preferred food
Solution– first and foremost, do not let yourself get into a power struggle with your child! Eating is one of the few things in their control during childhood and a power struggle could make the entire experience negative and therefore, aversive, and intolerable in the future. Instead, a BCBA can walk you through getting your child to tolerate the food before engaging with it further. Start small, with zero expectations, and follow your child’s lead.
Challenge– Your child spits out, packs, gags, or purposely chokes on the food they have been asked to eat.
Solution– Rather than putting attention on the maladaptive behavior, wait until the situation has passed, aid your child in picking up any spilled or expulsed food, then begin the process again. A BCBA can help with the exact steps to take and will explain the importance of positive reinforcement to shape your child’s eating behaviors.
Challenge- Your child cries, screams, or throws a tantrum when presented with new or non-preferred food
Solution- again, avoid the power struggles! Have a BCBA help form a plan that will help ignore the undesired mealtime behavior and reinforce good manners, communication, and tolerating new food
Applied Behavior Analysis is becoming an increasingly popular resolution to help children with limited food preferences. It is important to reiterate that ABA can be effective for those children who do not display difficulties with eating that are due to another medical condition or underlying physical deficiency, such as weak mouth muscles or poor gag reflex. Those children who display a more complex condition with regard to feeding disorders should be medically evaluated and may receive more effective treatment through a multi-disciplinary approach.
When/if it is determined that the picky eating is strictly due to behavioral challenges, ABA is effective for intervention. It is important to seek the help of a BCBA who has experience and knowledge regarding effective treatment methods. Since every child is different, BCBAs can help form a program that will work for your child’s individual needs and you will not have to worry about accidentally reinforcing the wrong behaviors in the process!