After six months of breast or bottle, the time has finally come for your baby to join the dinner table.
But going from a purely liquid diet to a solid diet may not be as smooth of a transition as you expected.
For some babies, it’s a lot of work to teach them to chew and swallow food – or is it?
With a few simple guidelines, your baby will soon be dining with the family.
Is Your Baby Ready to Chew and Swallow Food?
Before you dive in, you need to make sure that your baby is ready.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until at least 6 months before introducing solids.
Even if your baby is reaching for food before 6 months, it doesn’t mean that your baby is ready to eat. She’s just curious!
Once your baby has reached 6 months of age, some other signs of readiness to look for include:
- Baby can hold her head up
- Baby can sit up with support or independently
- Baby has lost the extrusion reflex (using the tongue to push food out)
- Baby has doubled her birth weight
But don’t take it from me – you should always consult with your pediatrician prior to beginning solids.
If your baby was born premature or has any other special needs, you may need to wait even longer before beginning solids. That’s okay – breast milk or formula provides all the nutrition that they need for the first year.
Keep in mind that there is no need to rush into this.
Even if your baby appears ready, some babies just aren’t interested in eating and that’s okay.
Because the main source of nutrition should be breast milk or formula, food prior to their first birthday is more about learning than actual nourishment.
Remember this mantra, “before one, food is just for fun.”
Chewing Skill Development Among Babies
Learning to chew and swallow food is a process, so be prepared to take your time.
There are several variables that can affect your baby’s chewing skills, such as age, teeth, exposure to different textures, etc.
Take each of these into consideration as you introduce different foods to your baby.
Prior to 6 months, babies’ digestive systems aren’t ready to handle food.
So even if your baby is sitting up and holding her head up at 4 months, her digestive system may not yet be ready.
Some parents try to introduce solid food early in order to get baby to sleep through the night, but there is no evidence that food helps your baby sleep longer.
Babies sleep longer because they have developed neurologically, which just so happens to occur around the time that they begin eating solids.
Babies are born with the “extrusion reflex” that causes them to push any foreign objects forward to the front of their mouth.
This is a good thing because it helps prevent choking if a baby isn’t ready to swallow.
Most babies lose this reflex between 4-6 months, but some may take a little longer.
If your baby is 6 months old but still pushes food forward with her tongue, this is a sign that she is not ready to chew and swallow. Wait a while and then try again.
Like the extrusion reflex, babies have a gag reflex that begins to disappear around 6 months or later.
Remember when you were a kid and the doctor would use a tongue depressor to look at your throat?
It’s quite common for kids and even some adults to gag when a foreign object touches the back of their tongue.
A baby’s gag reflux is even stronger in order to prevent choking, like the extrusion reflex. Even if your baby has lost the extrusion reflex, it’s possible she may still gag from time to time.
This is okay and there’s no need to freak out. It’s part of the learning process.
Just make sure you are giving baby small bites that she can easily manipulate with her tongue.
Chewing is a lot of work!
If you’re reading this with a snack in your hand, take a bite. Stop and think about each step of the chewing process.
Depending on what you’re eating, you might use your front teeth to take a bite, but then you will automatically push it back towards your molars for the rest of the work. But that’s not all.
As you chew, your tongue moves from side to side, moving the food around so that it is all broken down evenly. Then, you begin to swallow. That’s a lot of steps!
Before your baby can become an expert at chewing, they need time to practice the movements.
In the beginning, teeth are not nearly as important as you might think.
If you are feeding your baby purees and soft solids, you will be surprised at how much “chewing” they can do with just their gums.
Even babies who have no teeth can still practice the movements of moving food around with their tongues and moving their jaws up and down.
Just be sure that you talk with your pediatrician about what kind of meat or other firm foods your baby can eat if their teeth are late to arrive and adjust accordingly.
Meats can be pureed in a blender or you can cook ground meat to get a fine, soft texture for advanced chewers who still don’t have teeth.
I have a friend whose family has a significant genetic difference – none of the men have teeth!
Her three-year-old only has four teeth, yet he is able to eat several kinds of meat if it is ground or chopped appropriately.
But whether your baby has no teeth or a mouth full of chompers, it’s a good idea to wait on tough foods like steak or nuts until you are sure they can handle it without choking and of course, avoid giving your baby any food the same size as their airway.
How to Help Your Baby Learn to Chew and Swallow Food
There are several different approaches to introducing solids, but one thing that doctors agree on is that there should be a variety of tastes and textures. Let’s talk about texture for a bit.
Have you ever eaten something that you just couldn’t stomach because the texture was strange? Some people can’t handle mashed potatoes, and others can’t stand Jell-O.
New (and strange) textures can be disconcerting for a baby, but there are a few things you can do to help ease the transition.
Teething toys are for more than just sore gums.
Toys like the Asani Giraffe Baby Teether help babies to adjust to rough and smooth textures that they may find in the food that they eat.
Chewing on toys also develops their jaw and tongue muscles, which they will need to move that food around.
Purees and Cereals
Some doctors recommend beginning baby on rice cereal, while some recommend fruit or vegetable purees.
Regardless of which one you pick, you can easily adjust the texture by adding more water to a bowl of cereal or by blending fruits and cooked vegetables longer in the blender.
The smooth texture of a puree or runny cereal resembles that of breast milk or formula but is a little thicker so it’s an easy transition to solids.
Once your baby has mastered the art of the puree (usually after a few weeks), you can try thickening up the cereal or mashing soft fruits (like a banana) and cooked vegetables instead of blending them.
This is where they will really have to use their chewing skills and get the jaw involved.
Soft Finger Foods
After purees and mashed foods, you can begin to give your baby (who may be closer to a toddler by this point) small, easily manageable soft finger foods. Think frozen mixed veggies, cooked until soft.
A popular choice to transition to this stage is an easily dissolved finger food like these Happy Baby Organic Superfood Munchies or these Gerber Yogurt Melts.
The benefit of these pre-packaged finger foods is that they dissolve easily, allowing your baby the opportunity to practice chewing without the risk of choking.
They’re also great for traveling or eating out (I have a hidden stash of the yogurt melts for road trips). Just be sure not to eat them all yourself – they’re pretty tasty!
Baby Led Weaning
Why not go ahead and skip to the real deal?
Some parents choose to follow the Baby-Led Weaning approach and skip “traditional” baby foods in favor of long, thin strips of fruit, veggies, or meat that are easy to handle and gnaw on.
Not only does this method develop chewing skills, but it teaches baby hand-eye coordination and allows them to regulate how much they eat, rather than a parent spoon feeding the baby. Bonus: it saves time and money!
Instead of cooking and blending your own baby foods or buying expensive baby food jars, you just slice the food that you’re already cooking and put it on the tray for baby to gnaw on.
They learn to experiment with texture, use their jaws, grasp and hold, and feed themselves.
The authors claim that it’s not really a new approach – it’s been used for centuries, long before baby food companies began selling jars with pictures of an adorable chubby-cheeked baby.
A Blended Approach
In my own home, I take a blended approach.
Sometimes, it’s easier to put a few boiled carrot slices on my daughter’s tray. Other times, I know there will be less mess if I spoon feed a puree.
There is no right or wrong way to feed a baby, so long as the food is safe and your baby is supervised. Never leave a baby to eat alone.
Best Foods for Babies to Practice Chewing
For young babies, the best foods to practice chewing are those that are soft and mushy until they get the hang of it.
If you’re trying the baby led weaning (BLW) approach, give your baby long, narrow slices of soft foods that are easily held. Examples include boiled carrots, avocado slices, or even a peeled apple or pear slice.
If you’re taking the spoon-fed approach, once you get beyond purees you can give your baby mashed beans, bread, tofu, or teething crackers.
Regardless of the approach, make sure that you are including foods with a variety of nutrients and a good balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
5 Helpful Tips for Teaching Chewing and Swallowing
That’s right, relax.
If you are tense, your baby will sense it and become tense as well.
Try not to freak out if your baby’s gag reflex kicks in. If they’re gagging (not choking), they’re learning about how much they need to chew before swallowing.
But if you startle, your baby will become scared and not want to eat anymore.
Do make sure you know infant CPR and what to do in a true choking situation, but if you follow your doctor’s advice and avoid hard to chew foods or those foods that are easily choked on (such as whole grapes, nuts, steak, etc.), then your baby will be okay.
2. Start Small
Chewing and swallowing are skills that take time to learn.
Your baby’s first experiences with food are more about exploration than actual nutrition, so don’t worry about how much your baby is actually eating.
Whether you spoon feed or try BLW, your baby may only eat a few teaspoons (at most) in the beginning.
Allow your baby to play with their food rather than worry about how much they eat. Each meal is a learning experience!
3. Use Teething Toys
When it’s not meal time, give your baby teething toys of various textures and shapes so they can experiment with different textures and strengthen their jaw and tongue muscles.
4. Vary Textures and Flavors
Make sure that your baby begins to experience different food textures and flavors early on.
The sooner they taste broccoli and green beans, banana and raspberries, the more likely they will be to enjoy these foods without (much) protest as they get older.
5. Be Patient
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some babies need 10-15 exposures to a food before they will accept it. That’s A LOT!
So don’t give up if your baby spits out broccoli at first taste, or snubs avocado (the horror!).
Just try again in a few days. And again…and again…and again.
The Challenges of Chewing and Swallowing Among Toddlers
What if your baby isn’t a baby anymore?
As babies grow into toddlers, other challenges come into play.
Throwing food, picky eating, and messy meals happen day by day.
A toddler (from age 1 to 2 years) may not be able to speak much, but they can certainly communicate through their actions.
Here are a few tips to help and improve your toddler’s manners at the dinner table:
Teach Your Toddler to Chew With Their Mouth Closed
You’ll need to be patient (very patient) and try not to nag, but the sooner your toddler learns to chew with their mouth closed the fewer challenges you’ll have later.
Help your toddler by offering small bites of food.
If your toddler eats like the Cookie Monster, keep the majority of their food on the plate in front of you and only offer them a few pieces at a time on the high chair tray.
Demonstrate by showing them how you chew with your mouth closed – you can even make it a game with older toddlers!
Tell your toddler, “chew like you have a secret!” and over exaggerate chewing with a closed mouth for them to see.
Teach your Toddler to Chew Long Enough
Chewing well not only prevents choking but is also the first step in the digestion process.
Extended chewing prevents overeating by allowing our bodies time to recognize that we are full.
You can teach your toddler to chew longer by making a game during each bite. Practice counting to ten or sing a silly song. Say the alphabet or recite a poem.
It may sound gross, but you can even open your mouth to show your toddler your own chewed food so they know what it should look like. Let them see in a mirror that theirs looks the same.
Be Positive and Correct Gently
When your toddler chews their food properly, give them positive reinforcement, and avoid harsh rebukes when they practice bad manners such as spitting out food.
A simple “no, no” and take away the food will usually get the point across. Then, demonstrate the desired behavior and give praise when they do it.
Toddlers are at an age where they respond well to praise, so take advantage of it to teach good table manners.
Remember, regardless of the method you choose or the age of your baby, always be sure to check with your doctor before beginning solids.
Ask about when and how to introduce potentially allergenic foods (such as tree nuts, peanuts, eggs, dairy, and shellfish) and follow your doctor’s guidelines.
How to Teach Your Baby to Chew and Swallow Food