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Eating difficulties

Some disabled children have difficulties with eating and drinking. This might be because they have experienced difficulties in the past. Sometimes it can continue, even when the original cause of the difficulty has been resolved.

Warning Always seek professional guidance

A speech and language therapist (SLT) can support you to ensure mealtimes are safe, enjoyable and provide enough nutrition.

Other professionals who may be able to help include:

  • occupational therapist (OT)
  • dietician
  • GP
  • health visitor
  • school nurse

It’s important not to force your child to eat and drink. This will make it even harder for them. Try to make mealtimes as an enjoyable experience as you can.

Heartburn and acid reflux

Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat (acid reflux).

Some people may experience pain or difficulty with swallowing. It can also give an acidic taste in the mouth and cause people to feel sick.

Reflux can make you feel uncomfortable and tired as it can affect your sleep if you eat too close to your bedtime.


Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia)

A speech and language therapist can help if your child is having difficulties with their swallowing. They will watch them eat and drink and can often make recommendations based on this.

Swallowing difficulties

Tube or non-oral feeding

Tube feeding may be necessary for some children who refuse or are not able to suck or swallow to get proper nutrition or to avoid food passing into the lungs rather than the stomach.

Some children need tube feeding to make sure they get enough calories to stay healthy. 

NGT (Nasogastric Tube)

An NGT tube passes directly into the tummy via the nose.

PEG (Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy)

PEG passes directly through the skin into the stomach.

Some children have some food via their mouth and some food via the tube. Your SLT and dietician will be able to advise how much to give via the mouth and tube.


Some children need tube feeding because they have severe reflux. In certain cases, the tube passes through the stomach into the jejunum. Because this bypasses the stomach, the feed must be continuous. This means your child will have a constant drip of milk going into their jejunum.

Tube feeding

Sensory issues around food

Some families with children on the autism spectrum may struggle to get them to eat because they feel comfortable with a restricted diet. This means that they are more comfortable with:

  • certain types of food, such as crunchy, soft, dry or wet
  • certain colours
  • certain textures, so they may eat crunchy cereal and drink milk, but not together

Try to make a list of the foods that your child will eat. Work within those or try to find similar foods.

There are some things that could help at meal times:

  • Try to eat in a calm and relaxed environment.
  • Never force someone to eat. This always makes the problem worse.
  • Pretend you do not mind your child not eating, even if you do.
  • Try to get your child to join you, even for a short time.
  • Avoid mentioning uneaten food.
  • Offer a variety of food regularly.

Ask your healthcare professional for advice.

Eating problems: further help

You can find further help for disabled children with eating problems or feeding issues.

Speech and language therapy

Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) is the professional body for speech and language therapists in the UK.

ASLTIP (The Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice) offers information about independent speech and language therapy.


PINNT (Patients on Intravenous and Naso Gastric Nutrition Therapy) promotes public awareness and research.

BAPEN (British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition) raises awareness of malnutrition.

Support and equipment

BLISS offers advice on premature babies and feeding options.

Disabled Living Foundation (DLF) offers practical, unbiased information and advice on disability equipment.

Fledglings sells toys and aids such as feeding cups, spoons and bibs to help parents, carers and childcare professionals.

Last reviewed by Scope on: 25/10/2021

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