Eating Skills for Babies and Toddlers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Teaching Your Infant About Food
Whether it is from the breast or a bottle, newborns need to eat every few hours, and throughout infancy, babies need their parents to help them eat. You can involve your baby in the process right from the start and help him begin to learn about eating and food.
- Use the time spent in feeding to interact with your child. Cuddle and talk or sing to him as you nurse or bottle feed him.
- If you’re using a bottle and your baby has some vision or you’re unsure about his vision, select a bottle with a colorful pattern on it or a colored ring around the nipple. Encourage your baby to look at the bottle as you bring it to his mouth.
- Guide your baby’s hands to help you hold the bottle to his mouth, even if only for a few seconds. Because he may not see the bottle, he may not be aware of it. Showing him the objects with which he is interacting is a first step in developing his awareness and curiosity about the world around him.
- To babies with impaired vision, objects and people often seem to appear out of nowhere. When preparing a bottle for your baby, show him how you get it out of the refrigerator and heat it, and explain out loud what you are doing. When you do this, you will be helping your baby begin to understand where food is kept and how it reaches him.
Starting Solid Food
By the time your baby is five or six months old, he’ll probably be starting to eat solid foods such as rice, cereal, or puréed vegetables. You’ll be the one doing the actual feeding at first, but he needs to begin to learn about the food, the bowl, and the spoon you use to bring food to his mouth. To help him start, let him explore the bowl and spoon with his hands before you begin feeding him. All babies are messy eaters, so don’t be surprised if more of his lunch ends up on his face, hands, and clothes than inside him—especially when he starts to feed himself! Stopping him because he made a mess may only discourage him from trying again.
Here are some suggestions for engaging a baby who is visually impaired in learning about eating.
- If your baby has some vision, pick a bowl that provides contrast between the color of the bowl and the color of the food. For example, a dark blue or red bowl contrasts clearly with light-colored cereal. Encourage your baby to look at the food.
- Let your baby have a spoon to experiment with—to try holding and scooping food with it—while you use another spoon to feed him.
- Your baby may not be able to see the spoon coming toward his mouth, so it’s a good idea to signal him in some way to let him know the next bite is coming. You might tap his lip gently with your finger or stroke his chin as a reminder that he needs to open his mouth.
- As your child becomes more interested in feeding himself, consider using a bowl that attaches to the highchair tray with a suction cup so that it doesn’t move easily. Also, you may want to look for a bowl that has higher sides, to make scooping easier.
- Use hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand techniques to help your baby learn to bring the spoon to his mouth. It takes a lot of practice to be able to do this accurately, so be prepared for messes with large plastic bibs and a plastic mat or tablecloth under the highchair to make cleanup easier.
- As he grows, your baby will begin to use his fingers to pick up food such as crackers or small pieces of cereal. If he has usable vision, try to provide contrast between the food and the tray or other surface it’s sitting on. If both the food and the tray are a light color, think about having a darker, solid color placemat that you can put under the food. This will make it easier for your baby to see it.
- “Sippy” cups with a lid and a spout may help your baby make the transition from a bottle to a cup. Show him how to raise the cup to his mouth and tip it up to drink using hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand technique.
Helping Your Toddler Learn Table Manners
By the time most children are in their second year, they’re eating some of the same food as the rest of the family. Including your toddler in mealtimes helps him not only with his eating skills, but also with socializing, using his budding language skills, and learning new words. For most young children with a visual impairment, having a consistent mealtime routine helps in building their confidence and independence. Routines help your toddler anticipate what is going to happen and, therefore, allow him to join in.
- Be consistent in where you place your child’s bowl, plate, cup, and utensils on his highchair tray or at the table.
- As you put food on your child’s plate, show him where each item is. When he is older, you’ll just need to describe where things are, but at this age, it’s okay to let him gently touch his food to see what he’s about to eat.
- Use hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand technique to help your toddler learn to use his spoon and, later on, his fork. Some foods, such as mashed potatoes, are fairly easy to scoop, but food that comes in little, individual pieces—such as corn kernels or peas—can present a challenge to all toddlers!
- Plates that have a rounded, raised rim will help your child keep food on his plate more easily. An occupational therapist can advise you about the kinds of plates, bowls, cups, spoons, and forks that may help your child develop independent eating skills more quickly.