A goal to help children dependent on feeding tubes has moved a step closer to reality.

Auckland-based child psychologist Sarah Leadley has been awarded a $10,000 AMP national scholarship to help her achieve her dream.

She wants to pave the way in developing a home-based behavioural intervention programme for children with severe feeding difficulties.

The programme would ultimately be whanau-focussed, Government funded, and sustainable and equitable, she said.

“Feeding is an essential life skill, it really is something that can change your life. Food and feeding is something that is fully ingrained in our lives. You eat five times a day if not more. Having that skill is life-changing.”

Her desire to develop the programme was sparked during time working in Canada.

“A lot of the children I worked with there had complex needs at the time. But it was so rewarding.”

She said there were cases in Canada that “drove” her desire to return to New Zealand.

“I never really knew what I wanted to do my PhD in until then. I wanted to take my research further, and I wanted to come home. I could see there was a gap here in New Zealand too.”

As part of her PhD, Leadley worked with nine children dependent on feeding tubes within the home.

“Of them, six moved on to full oral feeding, and the other three made progress. We can show that this kind of service works in New Zealand.”

Developing a programme that works within the home would change family’s lives, Leadley said.

“A lot of these children have other disabilities too, so leaving the home for treatment can be a struggle on numerous levels. Even just getting out of the house with all the equipment a family might need for a child who is tube fed is enormous. The planning is immense.”

A home-based service, rather than one in a hospital, gave children and families real life skills, she said.

“It’s real. Grandad turns up and then there he is, taking part and being involved. There’s builders fixing the deck of the family home and we can work out solution to real-life distractions.”

The project involves a high level of involvement from other health professionals too.

“Not many people know that psychologists can help with feeding. Given that feeding can be so complex, it’s not just one health professional. There’s a whole team and evidence supports a team approach.”

Once children reliant on feeding tubes overcame their difficulties, further development often happened, Leadley said.

“Once that change happens, it’s almost like a domino effect. More and more things happen and you learn more skills.”

She will now build on her learning from her PhD research, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

Leadley said the AMP scholarship was “so much more” than the funding boost.

“Of course, it’s welcome and needed but the support and the follow-up has been incredible. To have people outside of your field acknowledge that what you’re doing is important, that is huge.”

She said there were about 40 people with similar training and experience as her in New Zealand.

“This scholarship feels so much bigger than me. It’s made us feel like our field is accepted and seen. It’s validation that you’re doing something worthwhile.”

Leadley is currently on maternity leave and hopes her recognition empowers other women.

“I had to take my baby with me during the application process. The judges could hear her crying in the background. AMP always made me feel accepted. It was never a problem me having baby with me. That means a lot to me as a Mum, and I hope other Mums see that too.”

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