What does your child’s sense of balance have to do with trying new foods?
Every parent knows the importance of a balanced diet, but what does the sense of balance have to do with trying new foods? Our sense of balance and movement, originating in the inner ear and known as the vestibular system, is the foundation for all fine motor skills. When your child picks up their first roly-poly pea with a tiny thumb and forefinger, that’s demonstrating some very fine “fine motor” skills! But, did you know that biting, chewing and swallowing are also fine motor skills and a child requires adequate balance and stability to perform those skills effectively?
Try this: Sit on a high bar stool at the local diner and order a piece of pie. Let your feet dangle – absolutely no resting those feet on the foot rest. Keep one hand floating in the air to help maintain your balance, but do not touch the counter. Now, pick up your fork with the other hand and eat the pie. Feel those abs tighten to hold your trunk in place? Can you feel your shoulders tense to provide stability for your arm and hand as they move through space? How well can you cut, stab and lift the piece of pie on your fork without any spilling onto your lap? Getting tired?
If you are like me, the fact that you love pie certainly helps in this scenario! But, if you were presented with a new food, one that you were not sure of, would you be as patient to try it? No, because most of your energy is devoted to maintaining your balance and monitoring how well the fork moves through space so that you don’t stab yourself in the cheek. It’s exhausting!
As a feeding specialist, I see this scenario when I visit most households. Young children are seated in square, plastic booster seats with their feet dangling as they wobble about at the table. They often have one hand gripping the table edge or the booster seat tray in order to remain steady. They may fatigue quickly before finishing a healthy meal. Little toes may be braced under the tray or reaching for any stationary object to fix against, so that tiny hands can snag a piece of food.
Ideally, kids need their hips at almost a 90 degree angle with a slight anterior pelvic tilt to keep the trunk steady and may require additional hip support via a rolled-up towel around their hips to fill in extra space in the seat. A footrest is essential, even if it’s a cardboard box slid underneath tiny feet at the table. The table top should be at the same level as the base of the sternum – the central bone that joins the left and right ribs. Forget table manners for now: elbows on the table are vital for keeping one’s balance when first learning to use a fork and spoon.
Thank goodness for our vestibular system ! Without it, we would never learn to pick up our first piece of corn on the cob and nibble from one end to another. We would never learn to hold an ice cream cone upright and gage our movement just right so that vanilla soft-serve ends up on our tongue and not up our nose! This is part due to motor coordination, or the proprioceptive sense, which is explored in our next post.
Until then, stay calm and get a footrest.
About the author: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is a certified speech language pathologist and national speaker on the topic of picky eating. She is the author of the award winning book, Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food! and the executive producer of the acclaimed children’s CD, Dancing in the Kitchen.