Toddler Teething That Leads To Food Refusals

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Cindy Morrison, M.S., CCC-SLP, CLC

Teething bites.

It’s my least favorite time in oral development for little eaters because they are in pain without the benefit of having fully developed speech and language so that they can clearly communicate to us: “Hey mom and dad, my sharp little teeth are slowly growing and tearing their way through my muscle and flesh. It hurts!  Help!”

Teething causes pain.  Teething can cause swelling ,inflammation, tearing, bleeding, blisters, referred pain (pain that travels) to the cheeks and ears and increased saliva (drooling) to manage which can cause skin rashes. All of these symptoms can cause interruption of sleep.  It’s rough on the babies and it’s rough on the parents.

Some of our little miracles smile through the pain and seem unphased, but a large majority of children show their discomfort through irritability and mealtime refusals. Depending on how this refusal is met at home things can either keep cruising along successfully or go from bad to worse.

When I hear “my daughter/son was eating great and then all of sudden started refusing foods”, I can usually pinpoint the timeline of that starting to fall somewhere between ages 12 – 30 months.  During this time, children may demonstrate mealtime refusals as the cuspids, 1st year and 2nd year molars are making their way to cut through the surface of the skin.

The worst thing to do during this time is to allow a power struggle to begin, to punish or to force a child to eat when they are protesting mealtimes due to pain.  Since mealtime refusals are not a true or safe option for them, the best thing to do is to make temporary small adjustments to make mealtimes more comfortable so that they continue eating to meet their nutritional needs.  The whole oral cavity gets inflamed during teething so tiny mouths are extra sensitive.  Here are some things that you can do to keep mealtime refusals caused by teething pain from becoming a habit.

Start offering softer foods

It’s very common for children to start preferring soft foods. It hurts to bite down, so usually on their own they will start showing preference for yogurts, apple sauce and other soft or pureed food choices that are more gentle on their gum line. Instead of sticking to your normal consistencies consider offering your little ones ground meat or soft, boiled meats that are shredded and diced. You may offer dips, such as hummus, yogurt or apple sauces to help chewing. Additionally, offering over-steamed vegetables and fruits reduces the total amount of chewing child are required to do to breakdown food.

Avoid acidic foods

Citrus fruits, tomatoes and tomato sauce can cause pain and stinging inside the oral cavity when teeth are cutting. It’s best to avoid them until you’ve noticed healing.

Keep it cool

Temperature extremes are uncomfortable (and can even be painful) for sensitive teething mouths. Stick to serving foods that are cool to lukewarm. Avoid temperatures that are too cold or warm.

When the molars are cutting, it is important to take the mealtime stress off both the child and the parents by incorporating protein packed “bean smoothies” into their day.  Your child should still be involved in the mealtime process and be an active participant (with a plate and food presented to them) during mealtimes, but by incorporating some protein into their diet through the smoothie during snack times, it reduces the amount of chewable protein that you’ll have to present during larger meals (i.e. lunch, dinner).  This helps your child by giving them less chewing to do and reinforces that they are expected to eat during mealtime.  That paired with the comfort modifications mentioned above should help you sail through the most uncomfortable days of teething without fighting the refusals from discomfort.  Once the teeth have erupted and the surrounding skin has healed, you can phase out the softer consistencies and gradually reintroduce the more difficult, chewable textures.

Chew Chew Mama Teething Smoothies 

Yogurt (individual, child serving size)

1 whole Banana

1/4 cup Blueberries

1/2 cup of Beans or 1/2 of a Chicken Breast (chopped)

Water (to desired consistency)

Blend and serve.

These smoothies are not recommended to replace regular meals.  They are recommended as supplemental offerings during the cutting stage of teething when food refusals are high.  Your goal should always be to continue to offer a wide variety of modified, regular foods to meet your child’s nutritional needs. It is important that your child is meeting their nutritional needs each day as their bodies and minds are growing.  If your child is demonstrating high food refusals during teething that are not easily remedied by softening their diet, please see your pediatrician immediately to ask for help.

Happy, Healty Eating!
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