Children with cerebral palsy have a lot of special needs. Sometimes they have muscular coordination problems, intellectual disabilities, problems with spasticity, problems speaking, and problems breathing. Likewise, they may also have problems with eating or with drinking, and problems swallowing. Unfortunately, feeding problems can result in life-threatening conditions if not treated aggressively. In most cases, however, with proper medical intervention, diet, and therapy, most children with feeding problems can go on to live healthy lives.
Most babies begin to self-feed at around nine months of age. Parents help enforce the behavior when babies mimic their hand movements during feeding. Babies with cerebral palsy, however, often times lack the voluntary muscle control and fine skills needed, and in turn miss these crucial milestones.
In other instances, medical issues prohibits babies and children with cerebral palsy from feeding correctly. For example, a few of the symptoms of cerebral palsy include gastrointestinal reflux (GERD), breathing problems, oral motor dysfunction (OMD), and heartburn.
Recent studies indicate that malnourishment happens much more often in children with cerebral palsy than medical experts originally thought. In fact, with anywhere from 30 to 80% of all children with cerebral palsy experiencing feeding issues, malnourishment is a real problem, and should be treated with diligence.
Most parents don’t realize that their children are having feeding issues. It’s the lack of awareness that leads to malnutrition, but there are several signs and symptoms to look out for. Malnutrition can become life-threatening if not deal with accordingly, so it’s important to not only look out for signs and symptoms, but to also bring your child into regular medical checkups. Common signs and symptoms of malnutrition include:
- Bruising easily
- Dry and/or pale skin
- Swollen, shriveled, and/or crack marks in the tongue
- Sensitivity to light
- Thinning hair that may shed easily
Feeding Your Child With Self-Feeding Limitations
If your child is not ready to self-feed, make sure that you are making the process an educational one. Ensure that the child can see the plate and see what is on the plate. From there, make sure that the child can watch you put the food on the spoon or fork and that the child can see you lifting that spoon or fork to his or her mouth.
This observation is what will eventually lead to the child trying the spoon or fork lifting his or herself. Also make sure that your child has the ability to test out the food through sight, smell, feel, and taste. By using all of these senses, he or she will get a sense for what food is, what different kinds of food there is, and how to eat different kinds.
Assistance with Feeding
Some children have trouble closing their mouths, and some have trouble moving their jaw based on muscle tone problems. Some have trouble moving their arm from the surface area to their mouth, and some have problems with how their sitting to eat. This is where the assistance of the child’s therapists comes in.
A physiotherapist recommends how to best position the child for eating. A dietician can recommend what foods to feed. The speech and language therapist can recommend a good chewing pattern, methods for closing the mouth, and consultation regarding the gag reflex if your child has a problem with swallowing.
The occupational therapist can recommend a good seat and other tools for making feeding easier. If the child has digestive problems, you may need to see a consultant. Both the speech and language therapist and the occupational therapist can help you teach your child about food through different textures and temperatures, leading the child to eat in different ways as different foods require.
Optionally, a psychologist may be consulted if the child has problems with sucking or with maintaining a healthy neurological status. All of these professionals can provide the best advice from observing the child eat, and the most comfortable way that a child can be observed is in his or her own environment and with only one guest at a time. Sometimes a child may need a team of specialists to support his or herself and the family.
Just as it’s important to foster independence with walking, bathing, and clothing, so too is it important to foster independence with eating. Allow your child to start self-feeding with finger foods. If this is successful and if the child maintains adequate nourishment, you can advance your child’s learning to developing a handle of utensils, straws, and cups.
It is natural for nourishment to drop a little with these challenges, but keep up with consistent feeding and he or she will manage these with the help of the support team. It’s important to encourage the child and to provide assistance when necessary. Overall, when a child learns independence in any respect, they will become happier, more encouraged children.