Today I am honored to welcome Occupational Therapist Carole Maisel as she shares about why it’s okay (and important!) for babies to get messy and explore while they eat.
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As a pediatric occupational therapist I understand the importance of promoting early self help skills and the intrinsic value of sensory exploration. According to The Carolina Curriculum for Infants and Toddlers we expect babies to feed themselves finger foods by 9-12 months, and to use a spoon and cup with some skill by 15 months of age. However, before those milestones occur, there are many opportunities to introduce the concept of self-feeding, and recent research supports this practice.
My observation of recent parenting trends represents a shift from encouraging self-feeding and the messy sensory experience that it entails to a neater, more controlled approach. The popularity of the food pouch as a quick and cleaner mealtime option makes this a popular choice for many busy parents. However, recent literature may be turning this around in favor of a more relaxed, child-centered and sensory-friendly mealtime.
In an article published on AOTA.org entitled, “When It’s Okay…To Play With Your Food“, the authors Kate Bartling and Karla Ausderau discuss such issues. They note how essential it is for a child to manage and explore the sensory properties of food for better eating skills and fuller participation in mealtime. Play stimulates all parts of the brain and helps kids take ownership of ideas. Self-feeding and oral sensory play support the development of oral-motor coordination (such as lip and tongue movements) and manipulative skills, along with the added benefit of promoting social-emotional development as the child masters a new skill.
In a recent New York Times article, “To Smoosh Peas Is To Learn“, Dr. Perri Klass discusses the importance of allowing babies to be “Messy Explorers” at mealtimes to support their learning and cognitive development. Dr. Klass reported that a recent study found that children learned more quickly about non-solid substances by exploring them with their hands and mouth. This most naturally occurs…you guessed it…at mealtimes. The authors went on to explain that toddlers accumulate all kinds of data and information about their world by playing and exploring. So when you think your toddler is simply making a mess, be assured that some sophisticated learning is occurring as he squishes and smears his mashed potatoes!
Did you know that most foods are rejected by children based on their texture, not taste or even smell? Touch exploration of new foods allows babies to become familiar with the texture and manage it on their hands before they taste it. Many experts believe that this is an important part of the process of accepting new foods, and increases the likelihood of a mealtime success.
Here are some easy ideas to encourage self-feeding and sensory exploration during your baby or toddler’s mealtime:
1. Make a disposable splat mat by cutting open a large garbage bag and placing it under the high chair. It makes clean ups a breeze for those of us who do not relish the idea of a messy kitchen.
2. Once your baby can sit well, get him used to eating in the high chair and participating in mealtimes.
3. I always encourage parents and caregivers to sit and eat with their baby. Mealtimes are meant to be a social time, rich with opportunities for communication, engagement, and modeling of positive feeding behaviors. So shut off the TV, and grab a sandwich for yourself while you sit and eat with your little one.
4. Limit use of the baby food pouches, or if the food is a preferred one, squeeze a small amount on to the high chair tray, or spoon. This allows the child to see, smell, and touch the food before it gets to his mouth.
5. Babies only need a small amount of purée to explore. Poking the food and licking it off their fingers is a wonderful sensory and fine motor experience. Self feeding is a natural way to encourage isolated index finger poke, eye-hand coordination, and social interactions with you.
6. Once your baby moves on to solid pieces (usually around 9 months), offer him cubes of soft cooked meat and vegetables from soups or stews to squeeze, explore, and enjoy. Every new food is an opportunity to learn about color, shape, texture, and taste. Other finger foods to try include “O” shaped cereal, cubed fruits, cheese, pasta, bread, and silver dollar sized pancakes. Avoid common choking hazards with young children such as raw carrots, nuts, raisins, and hot dogs or grapes cut into circle shapes.
7. Once he shows an interest in the spoon, offer your child a small sized, chubby toddler spoon for safe oral exploration. This is the age when you each have a spoon and can introduce the idea of turn taking and pretend play. To encourage scooping, place jarred foods in a medium sized, non slip bowl to make an easier target for new self feeders. Thick purées are often easier to start (such as pudding, oatmeal, and custard style yogurts) as they stick to the spoon, creating a greater chance of success.
8. Keep in mind that your child’s stage of development affects mealtimes. Children between 15-30 months are learning to separate from you and become more independent. This creates a natural opportunity to encourage self feeding, as it offers the toddler more control over the feeding process. Two and three year olds naturally drop foods from their diet which they previously enjoyed. At the end of the day, most children will eat what they need and, as long as your child is growing, you can relax and enjoy mealtimes together.
As you can see, self-feeding and exploration at mealtime has many developmental benefits for your child. So set him up for a lifetime of happy and healthy mealtime habits by giving him opportunities to play with his peas…and eat them too!
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Carole Maisel, OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist with 25 years of experience. She has a B.S. in Occupational Therapy from SUNY Downstate Medical Center, certifications in Basic Pediatric Neurodevelopmental Treatment (NDT) and Advanced Baby Treatment, DIR/Floortime Training from ICDL, as well as extensive coursework in feeding and sensory integration. She enjoys working with children and families with a variety of special needs in the Connecticut Birth to 3 System. Areas of special interest include working with children with sensory processing challenges, autistic spectrum disorders, and infant mental health.
In her free time Carole volunteers in her community, enjoys beach vacations with her husband and two daughters, and chases after their two dogs — a yellow Labrador named Lady and a fawn pug named Stella.