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How To Teach A Baby To Chew And Swallow Their Food?

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Chewing is the first step in the digestion process since compounds in the saliva break starches in our food inside our mouths. The chewing process, also called mastication, is a skill that infants need to master to eat solid food. Besides helping break food into smaller pieces, chewing helps exercise and strengthen jaw muscles.

Adequate chewing requires teeth, and the eruption of baby teeth often influences the ability to chew. However, parents can exercise their babies’ chewing skills from an early age.

Read on to know about when babies begin to chew food, ways to teach a baby to chew, and how to spot any issues with their ability to perform this skill.

When Can A Baby Start Chewing Food?

The ability to chew correctly usually appears around the age of 12 months (1). The baby would gradually become adept at chewing by 18 months of age. The 12 to 18 months phase is usually when the baby’s primary first molars (chewing teeth) erupt (2). Thus, the improvement in chewing skills coincides with the eruption of both the primary first molars.

You might likely have already seen your baby experiment with chewing with fingers or teethers around six months of age (3). During the beginner’s phase, your baby tries to coordinate the movements of the tongue, cheeks, and jaws that play an essential role in the chewing process (4).

Around seven to eight months, they start chewing soft solid foods. This is the phase when parents are advised to introduce new food items into the baby’s diet gradually. By the time the baby is 12 months, they can eat food items that are less softer than the food items they ate at a younger age.

Like any other milestone, a few babies may experience a delay in developing chewing skills, which is nothing to be worried about.

Chewing Skill Development In Babies

Chewing is not an overnight process. It is a progressive skill with several other skills and events leading to it. The following are the various factors that could influence a baby’s ability to chew.

  1. Age: A baby develops the ability to swallow solid food after the age of six months (5). Therefore, chewing can develop only when the baby can swallow solids.
  2. Extrusion reflex: The extrusion reflex is a natural reflex that causes the baby to regurgitate any solid food placed on their tongue. It prevents accidental choking due to solids. Babies lose this reflex by the age of six months (6). It is one of the first steps to the development of chewing.
  3. Gag reflex: The gag reflex is similar to the extrusion reflex and protects the baby from choking due to ingestion of solids. The reflex is triggered when a piece of solid food is placed at the back of the tongue, causing the baby to expel the food to the front of the mouth (7). The reflex fades away by the age of six months.
  4. Practice: Chewing can be done even without teeth. Hence, when you introduce your baby to soft and pureed baby foods after six months, it still involves a bit of chewing. It allows the baby to have adequate practice before they develop teeth. Each type of food requires the usage of different mouthparts. You may gradually increase the firmness of the food you offer to the baby based on their acceptance level.
  5. Teething: Teething is essential for chewing since it is only with teeth that a baby can break firm food into smaller pieces and masticate correctly. By the time babies develop teeth, they would have been well-acquainted with the basics of chewing.

Can Babies Chew Food Without Teeth?

Yes, babies can chew soft and pureed food even without teeth. However, food is mostly chewed by the lower and upper first molar teeth that emerge by 18 months of age. Until then, babies can learn basic chewing movements, which are further advanced by the time of eruption of teeth.  

What If You Don’t See The Baby Chewing?

Babies have tiny mouths, which makes it difficult for us to notice their chewing pattern. Thus, it is likely you may have missed those subtle and almost-invisible chewing movements. The next time your baby eats, observe their mouth movements closely. If you still find no chewing movements, you may want to give your baby some more time. Each baby is unique and could develop the skill at their own pace.

Why Is Chewing Food A Problem For Some Toddlers?

Babies attain the ability to chew in their toddlerhood. A toddler must go through their own learning curve to improve chewing. However, sometimes, a few toddlers could have a delay in their ability to chew.

  1. Lack of interest in food: Similar meals or affinity towards easy-to-chew foods may affect babies’ and toddlers’ interest in particular foods.
  2. Delayed introduction to solid foods: A baby must be introduced to various forms and textures of solid foods by the time they turn 12 months old. The lack of parental experimentation in feeding solids could cause the little one to become disinterested in consuming solid foods, thus causing them to swallow food than chew it first (8).
  3. Dental and orofacial problems: Toddlers with dental issues and orofacial problems, such as a cleft lip, and/or palate, could find chewing a difficult and strenuous process (9). Identifying the problem and providing appropriate treatment in such cases could help improve the toddler’s chewing ability.

 If your toddler does not show any signs of chewing even after the age of 12 months, consult a pediatrician to determine any underlying cause, if any.

Tips To Encourage A Baby To Chew

Chewing is a natural ability that a baby will pick up eventually. Nevertheless, parents can try out the following ways to help stimulate, exercise, and improve a baby’s or toddler’s chewing skills.

1. Use teethers

Babies who have experimented with chewing before may do well with chewing food. Teethers could lay the groundwork for a baby’s chewing process. Try giving your baby a teether and encourage its usage if they reject it initially. Pick soft rubber teethers free of flavors and parts that may break (10).

2. Help them practice on large pieces of food

If your baby does not prefer teethers, you can use large pieces of food as natural alternatives. Carrots and celery make great natural teethers. Make sure you cut the vegetables into large pieces, which the baby cannot swallow. If your baby already has their teeth, especially the front incisors, avoid this method since it may cause the baby to swallow a piece of the vegetable accidentally.

3. Demonstrate chewing

You can make your baby sit next to you while you eat. Try demonstrating chewing to them, even before they do it. Babies learn through observation and tend to mimic their parents.

4. Brush their gums and teeth

You can brush their teeth with a baby toothbrush and children’s toothpaste. In edentulous babies, diapers or gauze with filtered water should be used. Brushing a baby’s teeth helps desensitize the mouth to the gag reflex and also keeps the teeth healthy.

5. Serve foods of different textures and flavors

Serve your baby foods of different textures after they attain the age of eight months. It will stimulate the chewing process and make the little one move their mouth in the manner best suited to chew a specific food item. You can initially give them finger foods or crispy foods that soften when put into the mouth, such as puffed rice, graham crackers, and boiled vegetables.

6. Check for reflexes

The extrusion and gag reflexes fade away by the age of six months. They may persist for some more time in a few babies. You can observe the presence of these reflexes periodically so that you can serve relevant solid food items accordingly.

7. Start small

Each new food item or meal is a new experience for a baby. Thus, do not worry about how much your baby is eating. Instead, focus on feeding small portions of a food item to make the baby accept the food while also exercising their chewing skills.

8. Be patient

If your baby doesn’t like a particular food, do not give up. Try again a few days later. Also, introduce one new food item at a time so that the baby can grow used to its taste and texture.

9. Let them eat on their own

If your baby loves mimicking parents while eating, let them sit next to you during your meals. It can encourage the baby to pick food in their hands and chew it willingly. A baby with a self-driven interest in food might have an easier time learning to chew.

10. Feed them at fixed timings

A baby whose tummy is full is quite likely to swallow food without chewing when forced to eat by a caregiver. Therefore, offer food to the baby at fixed timings each day so that the little one is hungry when it is time to eat food. A hungry baby is more likely to display interest in chewing new food items.

11. Try a fruit feeder

A fruit feeder consists of a mesh bag that locks fruit pieces inside it. The baby can chew the fruit and suck its juices. Since the fruit is inside a mesh bag, it wouldn’t fall out. Do remember to purchase only an FDA-approved feeder.

Things To Do While The Baby Learns To Chew

Once a baby becomes better at chewing, parents are introduced to a new set of challenges. Here are a few things to teach the baby while they improve their chewing skills.

  • Teach them to eat with their mouth closed. The sooner babies learn to eat with their mouths closed, the lesser challenges you will face in the future. Demonstrate to them how to eat with the mouth closed.
  • Teach them to chew longer. Chewing marks the beginning of digestion. Hence, teach your babies to hold on to food a little bit longer.
  • Provide positive reinforcement. Encourage the baby with positive words when they do things right with chewing. Acknowledge their successful attempts. Keep changing the texture of food for the toddler to better practice chewing.

Chewing is a skill that comes gradually. Each baby is unique, and, therefore, if you feel that your baby has trouble chewing, give them some time. You may experiment with different food items and see what works the best for your baby initially. Keep them away from very hard pieces of food until they have mastered chewing. Patience and consistent efforts are essential in making your little one proficient at chewing.

References:

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Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more