Question & Answer - Feeding, Eating, & Drinking
What is the Learn Play Eat Mobile App? How the mother of an extreme picky eater is trying to help other families by developing a new digital tool.
Answer from Nicki Coates, BEng (HONS), in Sydney, Australia
My son is now nearly 6 years old. As an infant, he was medicated for what seemed like constant reflux (the pediatrician took us seriously when he vomited all over her desk). He had a tongue tie, problems latching, and severe food intolerances for which I did months of elimination diets while still trying to breastfeed him. Not all kids with these issues develop picky eating, but mine did. And, I believe these early painful experiences have not helped him to develop a good relationship with food.
We started off OK, eating purees and some finger foods, but around 8 months of age his interest waned. We were told “he’ll grow out of it;” “he’ll eat when he’s hungry;” or “it’s just a phase.” But, he didn’t, and it wasn’t. Around 2 years of age, his list of safe foods had fallen to under 10 foods and it was a struggle to get him to eat anything. This was extremely stressful. It seems like it’s one of the most fundamental parts of your role as a parent to feed your child. And, when that’s not working out, you question yourself and feel guilty even though it’s not your fault.
We researched many methods to help him. The division of responsibility in feeding (by Ellyn Satter) did help us take the stress out of mealtimes. It helped us realise it was our job to provide the food, and his job to decide what and how much to eat. But, it didn’t really change his diet much. Eventually we found a local Feeding Therapy Qualified Pediatric Occupational Therapist who showed us how to help him to learn about food and play with food to help create more positive associations with it. We slowly worked our way up the steps to eating, starting with just looking at and describing new foods, to touching them while playing, smelling, and maybe tasting them with a lick or a touch to our lips, to eventually eating small pieces of new foods! When we first saw our son eating a tiny piece of carrot, it was such a big thing for us all. He now eats many foods of which he was previously afraid, and every time he has a new positive experience with food, it helps to make it easier for him the next time.
Sometimes it’s hard to access professional help, whether financially or logistically. After talking to many parents in our Facebook support group, it’s clear extreme picky eating (also called fussy eating, selective eating, or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) is a big issue affecting the health of our little ones. This is a huge stress for many parents. My background is in digital product development, and I saw I could help families learn how to set up positive food exposures and sensory activities at home via a mobile app. What’s more, this could also help therapists encourage their clients to do more homework in-between sessions. And so, with the advice of our Occupational Therapist, the Learn Play Eat App was born! You can currently download the first version in the App Store.
-The parent can choose from 7 Experiments which group similar types of foods. The app then suggests different activities for those foods. By exploring and learning about food through activities and fun games, the child learns more about the food and it can become less scary for the child. This may lead to the child eating new foods and being less anxious around food overall.
-Videos of other children are included. The children talk about the activities and introduce the food types provided before each Experiment. This introduces the concept, so it’s not such a new idea, and it encourages peer modelling.
-Children are rewarded for participating in Experiments by increasing scores, levels, cute characters, and certificates to download. Small rewards can encourage the child to want to use the app again.
-Those using the app can see a record of progress over time. This can be shown to health professionals to help guide therapy programs, to interested family and friends to show how the parent is handling the picky eating, and simply as a way for the parent to be assured progress has been made.
-Information is provided on how to have a calm dinner time. This can help make dinner a more pleasant experience for the whole family.
-For a quicker option, parents can select the food with which they want help right now, and the app will suggest activities for that food. And, having it in an app means parents can access it any time they want to help their child learn about or play with food.
Why Use This App?
-The Learn Play Eat App is helpful for kids with sensory challenges or phobias toward new foods.
-It is based on methods used by pediatric occupational therapists and other health professionals.
-Kids become familiar with different foods. This can reduce stress related to new foods overall.
-There is a system of points, levels, and certificates to make the process feel like a game.
-The child is not asked by the parent to interact with the food. Rather, it is the monkey doing the asking!
-It can be done whenever it suits the parent and child at a low cost.
-It’s not a quick fix. It is, however, a no-stress, fun way to interact with food, helping to change mindsets and establish healthy relationships with food.
-An Android version
-New features and animations to further gamify the app and engage children
-Additional foods and activities
-Uses of the device to allow parents to schedule and remind them to do their Food Experiments.
We would greatly value any feedback to help prioritise our next round of development work. Please feel free to contact Nicki at firstname.lastname@example.org with any feedback or questions you may have.