DALLAS — Abigail Barnes might be one of the few four-year-olds who is encouraged to play with her food.
"Food has to be fun in order for kids to want to eat it," says Jenny McGlothlin, a feeding therapist at the UT Dallas Callier Center.
Abigail was born with a rare genetic condition called Glygogen Storage Disease Type 1b. She has trouble storing and breaking down sugars.
The result is that Abigail has been almost entirely tube-fed. So, eating does not come naturally to her.
"They are tube-fed a lot," explained Marci Barnes, Abigail's mother. "And then they don't eat with their mouth and they don't develop the oral motor skills that they need in order to eat food regularly, like the rest of us do, which is amazing in and of itself."
"It was very scary for her to eat because she could not control the food in her mouth," Barnes continued. "And she would gag, and she would throw-up and she would do all these things that none of the rest of us do."
Since eating is a crucial survival and social skill, Abigail is learning to do it.
She is part a feeding therapy program at the Callier Center. Our Children's House at Baylor Unviersity Medical Center and Children's Medical Center also offer feeding therapy.
Feeding disorders are a growing problem, as the number of children once labeled "failure to thrive" are instead surviving with the help of feeding tubes and other interventions.
By some estimates, 40 percent of premature babies will be affected by feeding issues that may require therapy.
"If you felt like you were going to gag or throw-up every time you ate, you would never want to do it," said Jenny McGlothlin. "So we're working through all that to develop the skills she needs to be a productive and functional kid and adult."
McGlothlin teaches youngsters the skill of using their lips, tongues and cheeks to move food around the inside of their mouths and get it down the right pipe.
McGothlin gently tempts her young clients into enjoying the sensation, by making it a fun time. She has named Abigail's cheeks.
"This side is 'Tommy' and this side is 'Sammy,'" McGlothlin said. "And her tongue is named the 'Statue of Liberty.' So we have to use the 'Statue of Liberty' to move the food to both sides."
After two years of therapy, Abigail is learning to feed herself.
She loves ham and chicken nuggets.
"She ate one-and-a half the other day," her mother said. "It's like, this is baby book stuff. How many chicken nuggets has she eaten? For her to want to do it and not be so hard for her, it's great."
The ultimate goal is sitting down for a family meal without choking. Or enjoying a snack at preschool -- just like other children.