Written by Tricia Au
Special needs children are often seen or associated with a number of caregivers and specialists in managing their overall development. Some parents with special needs children would seek out a dietitian or a nutritionist to ensure that their child is meeting the nutritional requirements. With that being said, nutritional challenges do occur but most of these challenges can be overcome with the right approach.
There are a number of factors that contribute to a child’s obesity. One of them is closely linked to genetic factors, for instance children with Down Syndrome can have characteristics of low muscle tone and bone issues which often results in difficulties to maintain a healthy weight. Besides that, a lot of the healthier foods are usually much more expensive as compared to unhealthy foods. Adding on to that, parents with financial issues would have to look into not only spending for healthier foods but also the cost for therapies and other treatments that their child may need.
Furthermore, the inappropriate portion size and the frequent consumption of processed and sugary foods does contribute to the cause of obesity. A lack of participation in physical activities can also play a part in a child’s weight gain, as those activities may be seen as risky activities for children. Moreover, these days children are often seen being in front of the television or with their parent’s phone as though the devices are the “nanny” to keep the child in place This does affect the increase in weight as children are just sitting instead of moving around and getting actively engaged in different activities. In addition to that, parents who are busy would find it difficult to prepare proper meals, hence they’d use prepared meals or box meals to satisfy their child’s needs.
However, there are ways to help a child maintain a healthy weight and support a child who is facing obesity:
Reduce the intake of food with high amounts of salt and sugar.
Cut down on processed foods in order for your child to take an interest for freshly prepared foods.
Educating your child about the risks of taking food high in sugar, fat and cholesterol
Bring your child along during grocery shopping and allow your child to choose healthier snacks by reading the labels so everyone is informed of the ingredients that go into the food..
Practice working out with your child. When your child is engaged in activities, it reduces their exposure to television or phones.
Make changes as a family - your child will be more motivated knowing that everyone is also working together to be healthier.
Make sure to portion the food accordingly, no extra/ seconds.
Take the changes one step at a time and start small.
Practice the habit of mindful eating. Come up with rules during family meals, like “no eating in front of the television” and make sure that your child is eating slowly
Set goals together with your child by encouraging him/her to have their diet & fitness goals.
Be generous with praise when your child achieves their goals
Children who show signs of underweight can be facing difficulties in terms of swallowing. Problems with swallowing among children can be looked into by a therapist. In more serious cases a feeding tube may be necessary in order for the child to consume food. Moreover, a poor ability to eat can also cause a child to be underweight, this can lead to a lack of nutrients for proper growth and development. A lack of nutrients in one’s body can have an impact on not only the behaviour of the child but also the mood and bodily functions.
With that being said, it is important to know what is the underlying cause for a child to lose appetite. Once a cause has been identified, it would be easier to provide the adequate support for the child. In cases where the child is taken to a therapist for swallowing issues, the therapist will work with the child in order to strengthen his/her swallowing abilities without aspirating. Besides that, parents can try exploring a variety of foods that might help peak the child’s interest when it comes to eating. If parents are looking into taking vitamins or supplements, it is important to make sure that you have consulted a professional before committing to the decision.
Some special needs children have certain prescriptions like anti depressants, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, etc. These medications have side effects that may have a link to weight gain. Parents can make an appointment to discuss with the child’s physician to seek for an alternative medication with less side effects.
More often than not, behaviour issues can act as a barrier to healthier eating choices. Children who can be picky with their food and have preferences when it comes to eating limits the variety of food intake. For instance, they can have preferences for food with certain colour, brand, texture and even the cooking method. In some cases, children may find it challenging to move on to different food textures, hence they prefer to stick to the current food that they are already familiar with. This can lead to a very limited amount of food in their diet. Besides that, some children may have a need for routine where they are adamant on eating at a specific place at a specific time.
Some children enjoy and even “love” food and we understand that as parents you might be wondering “why would I refuse my child more food if it makes them happy?” However we have to bear in mind that there is a limit to how much food a child should be consuming and also the type of food. If parents lose track of that key element, the child will face health risks such as obesity and may cultivate a negative relationship with food. For instance, the child may come to develop a eating habit based on boredom, feeling of anxiousness and eating when they are feeling down or sad. if you find that your child is eating out of boredom, approach them with an activity that they enjoy, this redirects their need to fill that boredom with food.
Overall, as parents or caregivers, we must be aware of the underlying causes that may be affecting your child’s health. In order to plan for your child’s journey to healthier eating habits, knowing about the root of the problem gives you a clearer picture on how to best support and guide your child throughout the process to better eating habits.
Capaldi, C. (n.d.). Nutritional Issues And Special Needs Children. Retrieved from https://www.abilities.com/community/buzz/buzz58-nutritional.html
Donahue, E. (n.d.). Common Nutritional Problems in Kids With Special Needs. Retrieved from https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/common-nutrition-problems-kids-special-needs-6499.html
Washington State Department of Health. (2010). Nutritional Intervention For Children With Special Health Needs Care (3rd ed.). Retrieved from https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/8100/961-158-CSHCN-NI-en-L.pdf
The Star. (2019). Nutritious Meals For Children With Special Needs. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/family/2019/01/18/nutritious-meals-for-children-with-special-needs/
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