Every child needs a well-balanced diet to support their growth and development. If your child has cerebral palsy (CP), however, they’re likely to face challenges with chewing, swallowing and digesting. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 93% of children with cerebral palsy have feeding difficulties, which makes it even more crucial that these children get the nutrition they need to grow and thrive.
Common feeding problems with cerebral palsy
As you’re probably aware, cerebral palsy is a condition that affects muscles, including facial muscles. Your child might have problems with the following:
- Opening their mouth
- Chewing and swallowing their food
- Closing their lips around a fork
- Breathing while their mouth is full
- Aspirating (when food or liquid enters the airway) can be a common concern while eating, and so can choking.
Your child might also suffer from gastrointestinal problems associated with eating, including:
Taken all together, your child’s feeding difficulties can make mealtimes extremely difficult. Children with CP might be reluctant to eat when it causes them so much stress, or they might be eager but unable to keep things down.
Consequently, they can lose weight, fail to hit important developmental milestones or suffer from malnutrition when they aren’t getting enough calories and vital nutrients. In the most extreme cases, some children with cerebral palsy can’t eat by mouth at all, requiring a feeding tube.
Essential nutrients for kids with cerebral palsy
Children with cerebral palsy have different dietary needs than other kids. This applies to required nutrients as well as recommended foods. Here are just a few of the nutrients that are crucial for kids with CP:
- Calcium. Low bone density is a common problem for people with cerebral palsy, so foods and beverages with calcium are a must. It can be found in foods like dairy products, leafy green vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, fish and tofu.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a nutrient that can help the body absorb calcium. It’s also easy to get deficient when you spend a lot of your time indoors, so kids with CP are more susceptible to it than their peers. You can find Vitamin D in fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver, and cheeses like cheddar and Swiss.
- Protein. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of tissues. Children with CP may have muscle weakness or spasticity, which can lead to increased protein needs. Good sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and nuts.
- Phosphorus. Phosphorus is good for bones and teeth, two things that can take a hit when your child has cerebral palsy. It can be found in foods like dairy products, meat and fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
- Iron. Children with CP may be at increased risk for anemia due to limited mobility or poor nutrient absorption. Iron is important for red blood cell production. Good sources of iron include meat, poultry, fish, beans and fortified cereals.
- Fiber. Constipation is a common problem for children with CP. Adequate fiber intake can help promote regular bowel movements. Good sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
Good foods for a cerebral palsy diet
There’s no “one size fits all” diet for cerebral palsy. Since every child is different when it comes to things like mobility, motor coordination and muscle density, their dietary needs will be different, too.
That said, here are a few foods that are generally recommended for kids with cerebral palsy:
- Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt
- Fish and fish oil
- Olive oil
- Dark, leafy greens
- Nut butters
- Whole grains
Foods to avoid will depend on your child and their specific triggers for things like choking or chewing difficulties, but generally speaking, you’ll want to be careful with spices, citrus flavors, fatty meats and carbonation.
Feeding tubes for cerebral palsy
Preparation is key when it comes to feeding a child with cerebral palsy. If something can’t be chewed in its natural state, you’ll need to slice, dice, blend, mash or puree it.
You might also consider meal replacement beverages and other easy-to-swallow foods like smoothies. You can often fortify these with supplements to ensure that all of your child’s dietary needs are being met.
If your little one is refusing even liquid-based nutrition, it might be time to think about tube feeding. There are both short and long-term methods that work in different ways, so talk to your doctor about your options.
What is nutrition and dietary counseling?
Many parents find it helpful to consult with dieticians and nutritionists in addition to their usual medical team. Nutrition and dietary counseling involves working with a trained healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian or nutritionist, to develop a personalized plan for your child’s nutritional needs.
This may involve the following:
- Assessing current eating habits
- Identifying areas for improvement
- Setting goals
- Providing education and support to make positive changes
The goal of nutrition and dietary counseling is to help individuals achieve and maintain optimal health and prevent chronic diseases through proper nutrition. In addition to education and guidance on healthy eating habits, nutrition and dietary counseling may also involve meal planning and preparation, behavior modification techniques, and support to help individuals achieve their goals and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Learn how adaptive equipment and assistive technology can improve the lives of kids with cerebral palsy and other birth injuries.
Conditions that can be treated with a nutritional therapist
Dietary counseling can help with many issues associated with cerebral palsy, including:
- Bladder and bowel control
- Weight management
- Delayed growth and development
- Esophageal bleeding
- Vitamin deficiency
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Oral motor dysfunction
- Poor appetite
- Failure to thrive
The role of a nutrition therapist or counselor
Nutritionists can help you create a one-of-a-kind diet that addresses not only the challenges of feeding a child with cerebral palsy but also the unique needs and preferences of your child specifically.
For example, if they choke on rice but need more whole grains because of the phosphorus, your nutritionist might be able to recommend a whole grain cereal instead, or they might show you how to soften rice with broths and gravies to make it more palatable.
Aside from general nutrition, other things to talk about with your dietician can include:
- Portion sizes
- Food preparation methods
- Minimizing the side effects of medication
- The encouragement or development of self-feeding skills
Seeking legal help after medical negligence
Birth injuries have been linked to cerebral palsy, so if you suspect that medical malpractice or negligence played a role in your child developing CP, you’ll want to speak to an experienced birth injury attorney. They can help you file a lawsuit and seek damages. A successful claim might be able to pay for many aspects of your child’s care, including medical bills, feeding tubes, dietary counseling, and long-term therapy and rehabilitation.
If you believe your child suffered a birth injury because of a doctor’s medical negligence, contact attorney Laura Brown at Brown Trial Firm. Laura has years of experience in birth injury law, helping families like yours all across the U.S. get the compensation they deserve.