Chewing seems like something that just comes naturally, and in a way, it does. Babies learn to chew thanks to reflexive movements in their mouth that teach them to move their tongue and jaw in a manner known as munching. It’s more of an up and down movement, but over time babies develop a rotational chewing pattern, just like an adult. However, don’t rely on a reflex to keep baby safe from choking! Here are four things you can do to help baby gain control over their food so that they’re less likely to gag or choke:
1. Introduce a few “starter” purees and thicken them up with baby cereal. You can make them yourself or use store-bought fruit or vegetable purees, but just be sure they are of an ultra-smooth, thin consistency. Super-smooth and slightly watery purees serve a purpose: They help babies learn to suck that small portion of food from your finger or a spoon directly onto their tongue and swallow it with control. These starter purees are just a bit thicker than breast milk or formula, so they are the perfect introductory food as baby begins to develop chewing skills.
2. Once baby can manage the thinner purees, we can use thicker purees to teach the first step to chewing, which surprisingly starts with the tongue moving from side to side! Infants experience tongue lateralization — this is thanks to the transverse tongue reflex, which makes the tongue move to the left or the right when a teether or a little finger touches the side of the tongue. Those first lessons in side-to-side tongue movement begin months before purees are introduced. When it is time for first purees, babies quickly begin to get the hang of it on their own between 6 and 8 months of age, which is why purees as a first food can be so helpful. After your baby is comfortable with starter purees, you can deposit a thicker puree because your baby will have molars to teach purposeful, controlled tongue lateralization. Just mix a smooth fruit or veggie puree with some Healthy Times Organic Cereal (choose from six varieties, including the Mixed Grain below) until it’s the consistency of yogurt.
Use your finger, a toy or a spoon dipped in the mixture. Let baby take it into their mouth, but guide your finger or spoon to the future molar gumline and gently deposit it there. You’ll see baby move their tongue in response to the food on the gums and reflexively transport the cereal mixture to the center of the tongue to be swallowed. That lateral movement is the first step to learning to chew because the tongue and the jaw move together. As babies grow, they learn to move the tongue while the jaw remains relatively still and vice versa. That’s why you can chew and almost never bite your tongue!
3. Another reflex that you’ll observe is the bite reflex. If you gently but firmly press on baby’s gums (where the molars will be), baby will appear to bite up and down, even with purees. Once baby can handle thicker purees on their molar area, try a softened, pea-sized piece of Healthy Times Hugga Bear Cookies that you’ve carefully broken apart for your little one.
Dip the tiny piece in a cup of water to help it begin to soften and hold it so that your baby can see what you are offering. As baby leans forward for you to place the food into their mouth, gently place it on the molar and press down gently. The pressure on their gums will encourage them to bite down, while the sides of your finger will stimulate the lateral tongue reflex noted in tip no. 2 above. Watch first for the “bite” and then the tongue to swipe toward the food and finally, the swallow. You may see a few more munches as they learn to manipulate the leftover wet pieces of cookie. Remember to video this moment — it’s a first for baby!
4. To continue to help baby learn to chew, offer soft pieces of steamed vegetables, ripe avocado and other baby-safe solids shortly after introducing purees, typically sometime in the sixth month. Be sure to model how we move food from the front of our mouth to the sides for chewing, even using your own finger to show baby how to move the food over to be chewed. Babies need extra help manipulating food in their mouths at first, and we can teach them to use their own fingers to do so. Now that baby is beginning to take control of the transverse tongue reflex and the bite reflex and make both movements happen on their own (rather than reflexively), the body knows to “integrate” those reflexes. You’ll begin to observe that the reflex is gradually disappearing between 8 and 9 months of age.
Remember, even master-chewers need supervision! Always sit with your baby when they’re eating to ensure they’re comfortable and safe exploring new tastes, textures and even temperatures. Smile and encourage your little food explorer! They’re on their way to being quite the adventurous eater!
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an international speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids. She is the co-author of the award-winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (2015) and Baby Self-Feeding: Solutions for Introducing Purees and Solids to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits (2016). The tips in her latest book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes (2018) are based on the latest research and Melanie’s 20 years of success as a pediatric feeding therapist. Melanie’s advice has been shared in a variety of television and print media, including The New York Times, Huffington Post and Parents Magazine. Visit her at www.MelaniePotock.com for more articles, professional tips, and helpful videos to raise your adventurous eater!
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