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Health Watch: Speech therapy to help 'picky eaters'

Children who will only eat about thirty different foods are considered "picky eaters."

"Problem" eaters, can have as few as three foods in their diet.

There is help available for parents.

Five-year-old Michael Rutland did not start out with feeding problems. "What 18 month old eats asparagus? Mine did. Then he got sick and he resorted to crackers and breads."

After enduring a bad stomach bug, Michael stopped eating anything with texture or flavor. "Past the point of being picky. He was putting a new food in his mouth and he would gag and throw up."

Well meaning advice poured in, with folks not realizing Michael's problem was medical, not behavioral. "As a first time mother, you tend to take that advice and say, 'Okay, he will eat at some point.' and he didn't."

Michael was not gaining weight and had a growth stunt. The frantic family was referred to speech therapist Hanna Scofield at Sacred Heart Hospital.

She begins with a game, before easing into the food therapy room. "All right, we gotta wake it up!" He blows bubbles. "Bubbles engage Michael's mouth and facial muscles."

The five year old sets the table and passes out the food. Scofield begins with a favorite for familiarity.

Food play is crucial for getting patients to touch and smell, behaviors that lead to eating.

Michael's revulsion is real. The moment it surfaces, Scofield moves on. "We never want to overwhelm our kiddos and we want to make sure they know they're in control because if they're not, it's a stressful situation and will cause a meltdown and the rest of your session is gone, because they're in fight or flight and their appetite is gone."

Veteran speech therapist Jean Crowder says just getting a new food onto the plate often takes weeks. "There are absolute fears and it throws them into terror sometimes. Sometimes there are temper tantrums because a food is in the room."

That was Michael's reaction to apples; sight or smell. Today he uses them to build faces, and has even licked a slice.

He's overcome his cheese aversion, leading to the addition of pizza to Michael's diet. "Having him take that first bite of a pizza was, you know, a big celebration for us. He was so excited and proud of himself."

Scofields goal for Michael is to add ten meats, ten fruits and vegetables, and ten starches to his diet.

Mom says he's on his way. "When are we gonna eat lunch with Mrs. Hanna? It's more of a reward and a treat to come here."