When we talk about slowing down or speeding up eating, we’re talking about internal rhythm. Our hearts beat, our lungs breath, and our muscles expand and contract to our own rhythm and our rhythm is affected by the rhythms around us.
The basic steps of eating: biting, chewing and swallowing are rhythmic themselves and work with and affect other rhythms of the body. For example, when we swallow, our airway closes so food can go down the esophagus into the stomach. In other words, we hold our breath. But it doesn’t feel like holding our breath, because we coordinate all of these movements with our internal rhythms.
For one more way to think about it, eating is like adding an instrument to the orchestra of the body. The song is still the same, but one more part needs to assimilate into the arrangement.
Below are 3 ways to work with this concept of rhythm to help your child pace their eating.
Since we just described eating as part of a rhythmic song of the body, it makes sense that we could start to access the rhythm of eating with the rhythm of songs. This can be in the form of background music that is calming for a child who may need to slow down or more and alerting for a child who takes a long time to get through a meal.
While playing music is a great background rhythm, sometimes children need more input to affect their own eating rhythm. Singing songs specifically about eating can help children pace their bites, chewing and swallowing to the rhythm of a specific song. As I’ve shared in past posts on songs and music during food play, I often use the, ‘This is the Way We Go To School’ tune and change the words to describe each step of eating. For example: ‘this is the way we take a bite,’ ‘this is the way we chew our food–up and down,’ or ‘this is the way I send it to my tummy.’
2. Verbal Cues About How To Move
While tuning in to the rhythm of a song can help children pace their eating, the words we sing can give kids specific instructions, a lyrical roadmap to the rhythmic steps of eating. The song I described above is a great example of a way that both the rhythm of the song and the words can help kids learn how to pace themselves.
Verbal cues can be really helpful. For example, if a child never puts their fork or sandwich down and takes more bites before swallowing the last, it can be helpful to cue them to put the food down to let their mouths chew. Or, if a child dawdles and seems to take a bite every 10 minutes, it can be helpful to cue them to pick up a fork or take a bite, but sometimes an eating cue of what to do can seem overbearing during a meal and I’ve found these cues to be most effective in the form of a rhyme or little song.
I’ve used little sayings like “Take a bite and put it down and chew, chew, chew,” or “When I have an empty mouth, I take another bite.” I don’t have a real tune for you on these–I tend to put them to a sing-songy tune, but by making them little song snipets rather than directives to eat or slow down, the verbal cues on what to do physically can become part of a child’s rhythmic self-talk. So, while you fade your cues over time, they continue cueing themselves with the tune in their head.
3. Sensory Strategies
When a child is overstimulated or understimulated by sensory information it’s hard to focus on any task, eating included. Sensory strategies such as a weighted blanket (or tube sock filled with rice etc.) on the lap can help to calm and focus some children. Dimming or brightening lighting can soothe or alert the sensory system and choosing quieter or more alerting rhythmic music will also affect how a child responds. How you use these strategies will depend on your child’s specific needs and, if your child has a therapy team, it would be helpful to talk to them about the sensory strategies they see benefitting your child.
In terms of the sensory system, distractions are just that, distracting. So for all children, it will help them learn to pace their eating if an eating environment is about eating and not distractions such as toys or TV.
Every child’s rhythm is different and the rhythm of every child’s environment is different, so these tips will, of course, have to be tailored to fit individual needs and situations.
As with all other food experiences we talk about here, you can always start with play! If your child isn’t ready to bite, chew and swallow themselves, these songs can be a way to get kids interested in and learning about eating by singing the songs to stuffed animals or puppets during food play!
Have fun, happy Thursday, and happy food play!