Table of Contents

Definition of Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder is a relatively rare eating disorder characterized by the repeated regurgitation of food, which is then either re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out. This regurgitation occurs within the first 30 minutes after a meal, and it’s not due to a medical condition or gastrointestinal disorder.

Individuals with rumination disorder might not express distress or disgust about this behavior, and it’s not driven by a lack of interest in food or concern about body weight or shape (which are common in other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa). Instead, it seems to be a learned behavior pattern.

This disorder can occur in infants, children, adolescents, and adults, and it often requires intervention and treatment, typically involving behavioral therapy to help individuals learn alternative coping mechanisms and break the habit of regurgitating food.

Rumination Disorder

History of Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder has been documented throughout history, although it was not widely recognized or studied until more recent times.

  • Historically, the behaviors associated with rumination disorder were observed in various contexts, but they were not categorized as a distinct disorder. Reports of regurgitation and re-chewing of food have been noted in different cultures and historical records, often in relation to specific cultural practices or medical observations.
  • The formal recognition and understanding of rumination disorder as a distinct eating disorder emerged gradually in the field of psychology and psychiatry. It was categorized as a feeding and eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-5, released in 2013, included rumination disorder as a separate diagnosis.
  • Clinical and scientific studies in the latter half of the 20th century began to shed light on this behavior pattern. Researchers identified rumination disorder as a condition separate from other eating disorders, characterizing its symptoms and distinguishing it from conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or other medical causes of regurgitation.

While rumination disorder has gained more recognition and understanding in recent decades, further research is ongoing to explore its causes, prevalence across different populations, effective treatments, and underlying mechanisms to improve interventions for those affected by this disorder.

DSM-5 Criteria of Rumination Disorder

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), rumination disorder is classified as a feeding and eating disorder. The criteria for diagnosing rumination disorder include the following:

A. Repeated regurgitation of food over a period of at least one month. Regurgitated food may be re-chewed, re-swallowed, or spit out.

B. The repeated regurgitation is not due to a gastrointestinal or other medical condition (such as gastroesophageal reflux) and does not occur exclusively during the course of another eating disorder (such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder).

C. The behavior does not occur exclusively during the course of another mental disorder (e.g., intellectual developmental disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or a psychotic disorder).

D. The behavior is not better explained by culturally sanctioned practices or other physiological causes.

It’s important to note that the regurgitation of food in rumination disorder is voluntary and not associated with aversion to food or concern about body shape or weight. Additionally, the disorder is diagnosed when the behavior causes distress, disrupts daily life, or leads to medical complications. Diagnosing rumination disorder requires a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified mental health professional or healthcare provider to rule out other potential causes and assess the specific symptoms and their impact on the individual’s life.

Etiology of Rumination Disorder

The exact causes of rumination disorder are not fully understood, but several factors may contribute to its development. The etiology of rumination disorder is likely multifaceted, involving a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Some potential factors that might contribute include:

Early experiences:

Some theories suggest that early experiences, particularly during infancy, such as stress, neglect, or disruptions in caregiver interactions, could contribute to the development of rumination disorder.

Learned behavior:

Rumination disorder may be a learned behavior pattern where individuals inadvertently learn to regurgitate and re-chew food. This behavior might provide relief or comfort in response to stress or discomfort, becoming a habitual coping mechanism.

Psychological factors:

Psychological factors like anxiety, stress, or other emotional disturbances might play a role in the development or maintenance of rumination disorder. The act of regurgitating food might serve as a maladaptive coping strategy for managing emotions.

Sensory processing issues:

Some individuals with rumination disorder may have sensory processing difficulties, where sensations related to food or digestion are processed or perceived differently, leading to the behavior of regurgitation.

Gastrointestinal factors:

While rumination disorder is distinguished from gastrointestinal disorders like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), some individuals might experience gastrointestinal discomfort or issues that contribute to the development of the disorder.

Social and environmental influences:

Environmental factors, including family dynamics, cultural practices around eating, or social stressors, may contribute to the onset or perpetuation of rumination disorder.

Understanding the specific causes or triggers for rumination disorder in each individual case can be complex and may require a thorough evaluation by healthcare professionals, including mental health specialists, gastroenterologists, and other relevant experts. Treatment typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder to help individuals manage and overcome the behavior. Behavioral therapies, counseling, dietary interventions, and family support are often components of treatment plans for rumination disorder.

Theories related to Rumination Disorder

Several theories have been proposed to understand the underlying mechanisms and contributing factors associated with rumination disorder. These theories help explain its development and maintenance, though none provide a complete understanding on their own. Some notable theories related to rumination disorder include:

Learning Theory:

This theory posits that rumination behavior is a learned response that develops through conditioning. Individuals may inadvertently learn to associate regurgitation with relief from discomfort, stress, or other aversive feelings. Over time, this behavior becomes habitual and reinforced, leading to the persistence of rumination.

Coping Mechanism:

Rumination disorder might function as a maladaptive coping mechanism to manage emotions or stress. Individuals may use regurgitation as a way to alleviate negative emotions, discomfort, or anxiety, albeit temporarily. The behavior of regurgitating food becomes a coping strategy that persists due to its perceived effectiveness.

Sensory Processing Theory:

Some individuals with rumination disorder may experience altered sensory processing related to digestion or food intake. Sensory issues could lead to discomfort or hypersensitivity, making the act of regurgitation a response to alleviate these sensations.

Psychophysiological Theory:

This theory suggests that there might be an interaction between psychological factors and physiological processes contributing to rumination disorder. Emotional distress or psychological factors could trigger physiological responses, such as changes in gastrointestinal function, which might lead to the behavior of regurgitation.

Attachment Theory:

Early experiences and disruptions in attachment relationships during infancy or childhood have been theorized to contribute to the development of rumination disorder. Unresolved issues related to attachment and early caregiving experiences might manifest as maladaptive eating behaviors, including rumination.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory:

This theory explores how thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions influence behavior. Cognitive factors, such as negative thought patterns or dysfunctional beliefs about food, eating, or digestion, might contribute to the maintenance of rumination disorder.

These theories provide frameworks for understanding rumination disorder, highlighting the complex interplay of psychological, behavioral, physiological, and environmental factors that contribute to its onset and persistence. Treatment approaches often integrate aspects from these theories to address the multifaceted nature of the disorder, focusing on behavioral interventions, cognitive restructuring, emotional regulation, and addressing underlying stressors or triggers.

Risk factors of Rumination Disorder

Several factors may contribute to an increased risk of developing rumination disorder. These risk factors can vary among individuals and may include:

Early Childhood Experiences:

Adverse experiences during infancy or early childhood, such as neglect, trauma, or disruptions in caregiving, could increase the likelihood of developing rumination disorder.

Stressful Environments:

High levels of stress or chronic stressors within the family, school, or social environments may contribute to the development of rumination disorder as a coping mechanism.

Mental Health Conditions:

Individuals with certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder, may have an increased risk of developing rumination disorder.

Sensory Processing Issues:

Sensory processing difficulties or sensory sensitivities, where individuals experience atypical responses to sensations related to food or digestion, might contribute to the development of rumination disorder.

Family Dynamics:

Family factors, including dysfunctional family dynamics, lack of support, or a history of parental psychopathology, could increase the risk of developing rumination disorder.

Medical Conditions:

Although rumination disorder is primarily a behavioral disorder, certain medical conditions or gastrointestinal issues might increase vulnerability to the development of this disorder.

Cultural and Social Influences:

Cultural practices around eating habits, societal attitudes toward food, or peer influences may also play a role in the development of rumination disorder.

Psychological Factors:

Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or difficulty coping with emotions, might contribute to an individual’s susceptibility to developing rumination disorder.

It’s important to note that while these risk factors might increase the likelihood of developing rumination disorder, they do not guarantee its onset. The interaction between multiple risk factors, along with individual differences, contributes to the complexity of understanding why some individuals develop this disorder while others do not. Early identification, intervention, and appropriate treatment approaches tailored to the individual’s needs are crucial in addressing rumination disorder and mitigating its impact.

Treatment for Rumination Disorder

Treatment for rumination disorder typically involves a multidisciplinary approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder. The goal is to help individuals manage the behavior of regurgitation and address any underlying factors contributing to it. Here are some components of treatment for rumination disorder:

Behavioral Therapy:

Behavioral interventions, such as habit reversal training, are often used to help individuals recognize the urge to ruminate and learn alternative behaviors to replace the regurgitation. Techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation training, or competing response techniques may be taught to interrupt the rumination cycle.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

CBT can help individuals identify and challenge maladaptive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors related to rumination. It focuses on changing negative thought patterns and developing healthier coping strategies.

Education and Psychoeducation:

Providing information and education about rumination disorder, its causes, and its effects can empower individuals and their families to understand the condition better. Psychoeducation helps in developing coping skills and strategies to manage the disorder.

Dietary Modifications:

Working with a dietitian or nutritionist may be beneficial to establish healthier eating patterns and habits. Dietary changes, such as altering meal sizes or frequencies, may help reduce the likelihood of regurgitation.


In some cases, medication may be considered to address associated symptoms or conditions, such as anxiety or gastrointestinal discomfort, although there are no specific medications approved solely for treating rumination disorder.

Family Involvement and Support:

Involving family members in therapy sessions or providing family support can be crucial in understanding and addressing the disorder within the family context. Supportive environments can contribute significantly to the success of treatment.

Stress Management Techniques:

Teaching stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation, can help individuals manage stressors that may trigger the behavior.

Comprehensive Evaluation:

A thorough assessment by healthcare professionals, including mental health specialists, gastroenterologists, and other relevant experts, is important to rule out underlying medical conditions and tailor treatment to the individual’s specific needs.

The treatment approach for rumination disorder should be individualized, considering the unique circumstances and contributing factors of each person. Long-term success often relies on consistent support, ongoing therapy, and addressing any co-occurring mental health conditions or stressors that may influence the behavior.

Therapies for Rumination Disorder

Several therapeutic approaches can be beneficial for individuals with rumination disorder. These therapies aim to address the behavior of regurgitation, modify associated thoughts and emotions, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Here are some effective therapies for rumination disorder:

Behavioral Therapy:

Habit reversal training (HRT) is a behavioral intervention commonly used for rumination disorder. HRT involves identifying the triggers and cues for the rumination behavior and teaching the individual competing responses to replace the urge to regurgitate. This may include techniques such as deep breathing exercises or specific muscle movements incompatible with regurgitation.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

CBT helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and beliefs related to rumination. It aims to modify dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors and teaches skills to manage emotions and stress without resorting to regurgitation.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):

ACT focuses on accepting unwanted thoughts and feelings rather than trying to control or eliminate them. It emphasizes mindfulness, values clarification, and committed actions, helping individuals develop psychological flexibility and reduce the impact of rumination.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP):

ERP, commonly used in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), might be adapted for rumination disorder. It involves gradually exposing individuals to situations that trigger the urge to ruminate while preventing the behavior. Over time, this can help reduce the urge and habit of regurgitation.

Relaxation Techniques:

Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, or biofeedback can assist individuals in managing stress, anxiety, or physical discomfort that may trigger the urge to ruminate.

Family-Based Therapy:

Involving family members in therapy sessions can provide support and aid in understanding and addressing the disorder within the family context. Family-based interventions can create a supportive environment crucial for the individual’s recovery.

Nutritional Counseling:

Collaborating with a registered dietitian or nutritionist can help establish healthy eating patterns and address any dietary factors contributing to rumination disorder.

The choice of therapy or combination of therapies depends on the individual’s needs, preferences, and the expertise of the mental health professionals providing treatment. Combining different therapeutic approaches and tailoring interventions to suit the specific circumstances of the individual can enhance the effectiveness of treatment for rumination disorder.

Preventions of Rumination Disorder

Preventing rumination disorder involves addressing potential risk factors and promoting healthy behaviors and coping strategies. While it may not be possible to prevent the disorder entirely, certain approaches can help reduce its likelihood:

Early Intervention:

Addressing and managing stressful or adverse experiences in infancy or childhood may reduce the risk of developing maladaptive coping mechanisms, including rumination disorder. Early intervention for childhood stress or trauma can be beneficial.

Creating Supportive Environments:

Foster supportive family dynamics, positive social interactions, and nurturing environments, which can contribute to emotional resilience and reduce stressors that might lead to maladaptive behaviors.

Stress Management:

Teach and encourage healthy stress management techniques from an early age. Techniques such as mindfulness, relaxation exercises, and emotional regulation strategies can help individuals cope with stress without resorting to harmful behaviors.

Nutrition Education:

Promote healthy eating habits and proper nutrition education to develop a positive relationship with food. Encouraging balanced and regular meals may help in preventing disordered eating behaviors.

Psychoeducation and Awareness:

Educate individuals, families, educators, and healthcare providers about the signs, symptoms, and potential risks of rumination disorder. Increasing awareness can lead to earlier recognition and intervention.

Psychological Support:

Provide access to mental health resources and support systems that can help individuals cope with emotional distress or psychological difficulties, reducing the risk of developing maladaptive coping strategies.

Early Identification and Intervention:

Recognizing signs of potential eating or feeding issues early on and seeking appropriate professional help can prevent the escalation of maladaptive behaviors like rumination disorder.

Building Resilience:

Encourage the development of emotional resilience, problem-solving skills, and adaptive coping mechanisms in individuals to help them navigate challenges effectively without resorting to harmful behaviors.

While these preventive strategies can contribute to reducing the risk of rumination disorder, it’s important to note that individual susceptibility and various factors contributing to the disorder’s onset can vary significantly. Therefore, a comprehensive approach involving education, support, and early intervention remains crucial in mitigating the risk of rumination disorder and related eating behaviors.

author avatar