Who to see for help with picky eating
In Australia, there are many different types of health professionals who treat children with eating challenges. Deciding which path to go down can be tricky, as it depends on your child and what type of treatment works best for them.
To help you make an informed choice, here’s a list of health professionals who commonly treat fussy eating in children.
GP or Child Health Nurse
Your family doctor or a child health nurse is a good starting point if you are worried about your child’s eating. They can do a health check to make sure your child is gaining enough weight, and rule out any temporary conditions that may be the cause of picky eating (e.g. teething or illness).
A GP can also determine whether your child’s fussy eating requires further investigation, and refer you to a specialist or allied health professional for treatment. Keep in mind, though, that parents we have spoken to have had varying levels of success with getting a referral from their GP. If you can afford to pay privately, you don’t always need a GP referral to see a feeding specialist. Some health funds will pay part of the private consultation cost, so it’s worth finding out what your options are.
Child occupational therapists treat fussy eating through ‘hands-on’ therapy sessions and by working collaboratively with families. Many are trained in the SOS (Sequential Oral Sensory) Approach, and use play-based techniques as part of their treatment. Children are given a fun opportunity to explore food using all of their senses in a stress-free environment, which can be helpful for those who experience sensory issues.
OTs are also able to assess children for other developmental issues, such as oral-motor delay, core strength problems, Sensory Processing Disorder, or refer you for an Autism Spectrum Disorder assessment. This means any underlying problems can be dealt with, so that your child receives the support that is right for them.
Speech language pathologists (or speech therapists) don’t just deal with speech; they also work with infants and children who have difficulties eating.
Child speech pathologists use play-based techniques similar to OTs, but also incorporate detailed knowledge about the muscles and complex processes involved in feeding. They can address any problems your child may have with swallowing, such as oral-motor problems, gagging, vomiting, or an oral aversion that causes them to avoid certain foods.
Speech pathologists can also help treat fussy eaters by providing positioning strategies for your child, teaching different methods of feeding, or recommending different textures of food to try at home.
Dietitian or Nutritionist
Many dietitians are trained in play-based feeding therapy to help fussy eaters increase the variety of food they eat. They can also support your child’s nutritional needs. If your child is avoiding whole food groups, a dietitian can recommend supplements and ensure they get everything they need for healthy development.
Sometimes dietitians are referred to as nutritionists, depending on their area of work. In Australia, all accredited practising dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are accredited practising dietitians. If you want to take your child to see a dietitian, make sure you choose someone who is accredited by the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Child psychologists can treat fussy eating, along with related conditions such as Anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Some psychologists use a gentle play-based approach that is responsive to a child’s emotions. They help children have intrinsic motivation to try a new food for themselves, rather than relying on external pressure or encouragement.
A psychologist might also use Applied Behavioural Analysis to treat fussy eating. This approach employs different strategie,s such as rewards, to change behaviour. While it is effective for some children, for others, it may create more expectations around eating and might not help their long-term relationship with food.
A paediatrician is a medical doctor who provides care for babies, children and teenagers. They usually specialise in an area of child health, such as childhood development and behaviour.
To see a paediatrician for eating problems, start by asking your GP for a referral. Paediatricians can also refer you to other health professionals for fussy eating if needed.
One practitioner we might not immediately consider for fussy eating is your child’s dentist. They can evaluate and treat physical issues in the mouth that may impact eating, such as tongue tie, mouth breathing and mouth pain.
We have put together a list of qualified play-based feeding therapists who provide help for fussy eaters on the Learn Play Eat app website. Some may offer tele-consults if they aren’t located in your area.