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Five Nutritional Challenges of Special Needs Children

Sylvia Philips by Sylvia Philips Additional Needs

Sylvia Philips

Sylvia Philips

My family has been through the tragedy, trials and ultimate triumph over childhood brain cancer. My daughter Bethany, underwent emergency surgery t...

Some of our children can't eat all, while others can't stop eating!

Below are five common nutritional challenges that children with special needs and their families face, along with a few suggestions that may help combat these issues.

1) Being Dangerously Underweight

Some children with special needs are underweight for a variety of reasons.

Some kids are just too sick and/or depressed to eat.

Others may have swallowing difficulties and others still may have metabolisms that burn their calories at a rate so fast that they just keep losing weight.

For these special kids a feeding tube and/or feeding therapy can prove to be life saving and life sustaining.

My initial introduction into what would become the first of many feeding problems for my daughter Bethany, was her total refusal to eat anything after her brain tumor surgery.

For weeks she was totally uninterested in eating anything other than breast milk. She began losing weight at an alarming rate!

Her doctor wanted to insert a feeding tube through her nose and down into her stomach to fill her tummy with life sustaining liquid nutrition!

I was afraid the formula would satisfy her hunger to the point that she would never want to eat again. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded!

After the feeding tube was placed, she gained weight, began to feel better and became interested in eating real food once again!

2) Obesity

Some kids with special needs lead very sedentary lives and as a result become overweight.

Children confined to wheelchairs or those who have limited mobility and can't get much exercise may have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight.

Getting our kids moving as much as possible, providing healthy fruits and veggies as snacks, and limiting sweets and chip consumption can help inactive children keep their weight down.

Bethany suffered with an extreme seizure disorder and spent twelve years unable to do anything more physically taxing than walking from her bedroom to the bathroom and over to the couch to lie down.

Needless to say, through no fault of her own, her inactive lifestyle caused her to gain some weight.

When a new medication decreased the number of seizures she had, Bethany was able to be more active and it was easier for her to maintain a more healthy weight.

3) Picky Eaters

Many children with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum and those with sensory issues are extremely picky eaters!

Some children will only eat certain textured foods, while others may only eat foods of a certain taste or color!

With diets like that, malnutrition is a valid concern.

Offering rewards for trying new foods might help.

If you suspect your child's eating problem is a sensory issue than  a consult with an Occupational Therapist might be in order.

In any event, picky eaters don't get total nutrition from their food, so they need to take a good multivitamin!

Bethany gets on these month long stints where she eats nothing but one thing over and over and over again for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

She rotates between pasta with tomato sauce, bean tacos, salads, and just plain old cucumbers!

A multivitamin and mineral supplement is a must in order for Bethany to be as healthy as possible!

4) Medication side effects

Many of our children with special needs experience medication side effects that can cause increases or decreases in their appetites.

If you suspect that a medication is causing your child's eating challenges, I urge you to research all possible side effects and report your findings to your child's doctor.

It may be that another medication can be substituted.

Unfortunately though, sometimes doctors believe the benefit of a medication outweighs any side effects it may cause.

If your child is in this situation, keeping him or her as active as possible and providing low calorie meals and snacks is your best bet for managing medication weight gain.

Topamax, one of Bethany's seizure medications, literally made her stop eating. She lost so much weight that she became dangerously thin.

So we tried switching her medication to Depakote, which then made her gain so much weight that she was well on her way to becoming obese!

We had to switch her to yet another medication which thankfully helped control her seizures as much as the others had and did not effect her appetite at all!

5) Genetics

Some specific disorders in and of themselves can cause nutritional problems for kids with certain conditions and place them at a higher risk for obesity.

Among such disorders are: Down syndrome, Spina Bifida, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome, Cohen syndrome, Carpenter syndrome, Borjeson syndrome and MOMO syndrome.

For disorder specific nutritional challenges, I would suggest googling and consulting with your child's doctors and therapists.

Whatever our children's specific nutritional challenges may be, I cannot stress enough the value of keeping our kids as active as possible, filling them up with healthy fruits and veggies and keeping track of their calorie consumption!


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