Trialling dietary changes with children who have digestive issues, abdominal pain or sensory issues may well be as traumatic for parents as it is for the children themselves. Understandably, most have attempted dietary approaches such as the GAPS diet or cutting out food additives. My experience in supporting parents to implement a dietary trial is that it is important to work with the child and parents to explain and agree on what is likely to be our ‘best bet’ to quickly achieve noticeable improvement in the symptoms that bother the child, without triggering any behavioural responses or food aversions. Easier said than done, I hear you say?
After hearing parents and children explain the child’s medical diagnoses (if any), current symptoms and concerns, and finding out what approaches they have trialled so far (often a lot), I like to understand and explain how early life factors and a tendency towards sensory issues may contribute to gut issues.
The following types of experiences and examples can predispose children to sensory gut issues. I share them to provide parents with an understanding of how a child’s birth, and early life experiences link to and are indicators for a sensitive gut, sensory issues, or possibly both:
Early life factors that may contribute to a sensitive gut:
- Premature birth and possible tube feeding
- C-section birth
- Difficulty breastfeeding – mastitis and possible antibiotics (from mum) or difficulty attaching resulting in long feeds (for bub)
- Tummy bug early in life (can wipe out lactase enzyme temporarily)
- Adverse childhood events
- Early life antibiotics (though these may resolve tummy symptoms temporarily)
One or more of these factors may be enough to increase predisposition to ongoing gut issues, but if they are combined with sensory issues then the likelihood of a sensitive gut increases.
Examples of indicators might include:
- Aversions to scratchy clothes, sand, grass or sticky things
- Easily startled by sounds or light
- Fearful of fast movement (including other little people)
- Anxiety or evident stress responses
It may not be immediately obvious, but it does make sense that children who are have heightened senses also have a sensitive gut. The gut’s enteric nervous system is ‘hotwired’ to the brain, which then tells us what to put in our mouths. For children with a sensitive gut and sensory issues, this might translate to one or more of the following:
- A limited food range – possibly 10 to 20 foods
- Lots of beige foods, not many colourful
- Unusual bowel habits – may be attributed to certain foods or circumstances
If any combination of these gut and sensory issues ring a bell for you, please know that they are more common than you may realise, that ‘picky’ eating can be (but is not always) a very early indicator of either food sensitivities, sensory issues, or both. On the bright-side sensory issues with food and a sensitive gut can be managed quite well using dietary approaches, alone or in combination with other strategies. We will talk through some options in our next blog.