Fort Worth, Texas,
09:37 PM

Some Children Hold Food In Their Mouths. Why?

A licensed psychologist explains feeding disorder known as 'pocketing'

A mom reached out to us, asking about the way her child stored food in his mouth. The stuffed cheeks reminded us of a chipmunk. And honestly, it sounded kind of cute. Until, we discussed the issue with one of our experts.

Alaina Everitt, a licensed psychologist at Cook Children’s, has seen this issue throughout her career. It’s a symptom of a feeding disorder she describes as “pocketing.”

Everitt said the issue of pocketing usually begins when children are young. The children may experience something painful, such as reflux or a sore in their mouth, and they find it difficult to eat.

The children then may begin a process of holding, spitting out or refusing food altogether.

Children who pocket food should be checked out by an occupational and speech therapist, even if they have had no other type of therapies or been diagnosed with any medical conditions, according to Everitt. She said those specialists can make sure there are no other problems, such as difficulty moving food around in their mouth with their tongue or if the tongue is weak. These children can usually be cured with basic therapy exercises to overcome these obstacles.

If it’s a sensory issue, more extensive therapy may be needed. Children with sensory difficulties, autistic children for instance, may need a lot of food for them to even feel it in their mouth.

“These kids will over stuff and pile food in their mouth and get the ‘chipmunk cheeks,’” Everitt said. “These children tend to like crunchy or spicy foods because they may have trouble tasting or feeling other foods because of sensory issues.”

Lots of toddlers will hold their food and that tends to be developmentally appropriate. If a child gets closer to age 5 then parents may have cause for concern.

As children get older, they become more skilled at pocketing food. The kids may keep their food in their cheeks until they discard it or the parents can’t get their children to swallow.

“It becomes a meal-time battle,” Everitt said.

Cook Children’s helps parents with a team approach to treating children with a feeding disorder. A pediatrician would help guide the child’s care. A dietitian may help the child find foods they can swallow. Speech and occupational therapists lead the actual therapy portion to teach swallowing and resolve sensory issues. Everitt comes in to help with any emotional or behavioral issues, such as anxiety or parent-child power struggles.

“Therapists have little tricks they teach parents; how to do the right type of massage or how to get in their child’s mouth with a vibrating tool as it helps them from a sensory perspective,” Everitt said. “These things can help children swallow easier. You also have to make sure they don’t have a swallowing problem at this phase and the speech therapist will help with that. If the kid has choked before or has trouble swallowing, why would they try to swallow? Even when that issue gets treated the kids are still scared and that’s when they come to me.”

Cook Children's Psychology Department

​​Our licensed experts provide psychology and psychiatry services for families whose children and adolescents, ages 2 to 18, are experiencing behavioral, neurodevelopmental and emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety to attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders. Click here to meet our team.

If you would like to schedule an appointment, refer a patient or speak to our staff, please call our Intake Department at 682-885-3817. Click here to learn more about making an appointment or referral.

Our licensed experts provide psychology and psychiatry services for families whose children and adolescents, ages 2 to 18, are experiencing behavioral, neurodevelopmental and emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety to attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders.

Because we are part of the Cook Children's Health System, we are also uniquely positioned to care for those children coping with mental health as well as chronic physical conditions or diagnoses.

Depending on the severity of a child's condition, we provide inpatient and partial hospitalization programs on the main campus of Cook Children's Medical Center and outpatient services in eight clinic settings across Tarrant and Denton counties.

Our services include:

  • Diagnostic testing and evaluation
  • Outpatient therapy and counseling
  • Inpatient and partial hospitalization programs
  • Medication management
  • Family support groups
Comments 1 - 7 (7)
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Sheila Gillespie
I notice a week ago that my two year old food eating habit change. She's not eating very well even I tried soft food on her she still holding in her mouth.I can her bones now in her back and her neck. Any help or tips about feeding a toddler.
Pat huc
I would like more articles on pocketing food
Susana begun
My daughter keeps her food in mouth since few weeks and doesn’t swallow
My son is 5 and he choked recently on a crispy piece of pizza now he doesn't want to swallow anything sometime not even water her autistic and adhd
My son is 1 and two months old, he always like to pocket his food in this mouth. Has no swallow problem. He doesn't eat much too.
Hello I’m 45 years old. As long as I can remember I have been doing this & im so embarrassed. I’m afraid of choking when I try to swallow.
Sara Hawks
I am interested