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Teaching your baby to chew food can seem like an impossible task, especially if you're doing it for the first time. As a first-time parent, you need to make sure that your baby doesn't turn their mouth away when they see you moving in their direction with a spoon.
Next, you also need to make sure that any food that goes in doesn't immediately go out because your baby has decided to spit it out. It's also essential to ensure that your baby chews all the baby food or finger food properly and doesn't swallow it right away.
As you can imagine, all this process can be quite frustrating for parents, so we put together a comprehensive guide that will help you teach your baby to chew quickly and easily.
When is my baby ready to start chewing?
Most of the time, babies are ready to learn how to chew and swallow food around six months of age. Usually for the first few months, a baby should be breast or bottle fed exclusively.
The transition from a liquid diet to a solid one is not always a smooth one. Not all babies are ready to learn how to chew and swallow at the same age, some pick it up quickly, whereas it takes others longer to adapt to eating solids.
As such, the first thing to do is to make sure that your baby is ready to chew. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you should not attempt to teach your baby to chew before they are six months and are showing signs of readiness. Even if babies are trying to reach for food before that age, it doesn't mean that they are actually ready for solids.
The good news is that there are some signs you can look out for in order to make sure that your baby is ready to embark on the journey of eating solid foods.
Some of the signs to look for include:
- Baby can sit up independently or with minimal support
- Baby can hold their head up
- Baby has doubled their birth weight
- Baby is no longer using their tongue to push food out
It's always a good idea to consult with your pediatrician before transitioning your baby to solids. Don't forget that some babies are more interested in eating than others, so there's no need to rush the process.
What are the main things to consider when teaching a baby to chew?
It's important to remember that teaching your baby how to chew is not an overnight process. This is because chewing is a progressive skill, which means that the baby needs to develop other skills first in order to master it.
Here are some factors that could affect a baby's ability to chew:
Babies develop the ability to chew and swallow solid food after the age of six months. This means that they can't develop the ability to chew before being able to swallow solids. Moreover, their digestive system may not yet be ready for solid food even if the baby is sitting up at four months.
2. Extrusion reflex
The extrusion reflex is something all babies are born with. It causes them to push any solid objects forward to the front of their mouth with their tongue. This reflex typically takes 4 to 6 months to disappear, but it may also take longer for some babies.
If you notice that your baby still pushes forward with their tongue even if they are six months old, this is a clear sign that they aren't ready to swallow. All you can do is wait for another couple of weeks and then try again.
3. Gag reflex
This reflex is similar to the extrusion one, but it's designed to protect the baby from choking on solids. The baby will expel food or any other foreign object to the front of their mouth whenever a piece of solid food gets close to the back of their tongue. Just like the extrusion reflex, the gag reflex fades away after six months.
4. Lots of practice
Even though it may look like a very simple process to an adult, chewing is actually a lot of work. The baby needs to learn how to move the food around to break it down and how to use their tongue from side to side before swallowing.
In order for the baby to master the skill of chewing, they need time to practice the initial movements.
Even though teething is essential for chewing because that's the only way to break down and find food into smaller pieces, babies should be acquainted with the basics of chewing by the time they develop teeth.
To do that, babies can chew pureed food and soft food even if they don't yet have teeth. The lower and upper first molar teeth are essential for chewing most types of food, and those emerged by the time your baby is 18 months old. However, by that time, the baby should learn the basic tooling movements and perfect them once their teeth erupt.
Tips for helping your baby learn how to chew and swallow food
Parents can choose from various approaches when it comes to introducing solids. Still, one thing that most pediatricians agree on is that the baby should be offered a variety of textures and tastes.
Texture is one of the most important things to think about when it comes to teaching your baby how to chew. For most babies, new textures can be confusing, but fortunately, there are multiple ways to help them make the transition to solid foods.
Most parents think about the teething toys only in relation to sore gums, but these toys are actually great for helping babies adjust to the smooth and rough textures they may eventually find in food.
By chewing on toys, babies can also develop their tongue and jaw muscles, which are all essential for learning how to move food around, as the variety in their diets expands These toys are specifically designed to increase tactile and sensory stimulation, and they are great for introducing babies to lumpy food.
Babies can safely put teething toys in their mouths as early as three or four months. It's always a good idea to offer them regularly before introducing solid foods so the baby can practice and build strength in preparation for the real thing. Moreover, it is important to continue offering babies teethers alongside real food so they can keep building their strength.
If you notice that your baby is struggling to chew when you try to introduce solid food into their diet, you should make sure you are allowing them to work with teethers regularly.
Serve foods with different flavors and textures
Offering your baby foods of different flavors and textures is a great way to spark their interest, and make the transition from breast milk to solids easier. Whether it's rice cereal, soft fruits, or a vegetable puree, offering babies foods with a smooth texture is a perfect way to make the transition to more solid food.
The next step in the baby's transition to solid foods should consists of mashed food such as a banana or cooked vegetables. This will offer the baby an opportunity to use their chewing skills and also make use of their jaw muscles.
Finally, when you notice that your baby is handling mashed food well, it's time to start offering them soft finger foods that are easy to manage. For example, you may try frozen mixed vegetables that you cook until soft.
One of the main benefits of using pre-packaged finger foods is that they dissolve easily, which means that you don't have to worry about your baby choking while practicing their chewing skills.
These finger foods are also an excellent choice for eating out or traveling or anytime the baby could do with a snack.
Extra tips for teaching babies to chew and swallow
Since the chewing and swallowing processes are not easy to master, many parents are likely to become frustrated. It's essential to avoid getting annoyed if your baby doesn't make much progress quickly. Being patient is key here, so if you notice that your baby doesn't like a specific food, don't just write it off. Instead, try again a couple of days later to give the baby time to adjust to the new taste and texture.
Introduce new foods one at a time
It's always a good idea to introduce new food items one other time in order for the baby to get used to a specific taste and texture before progressing to the next one.
Many babies love mimicking parents while eating, so you should allow them to sit next to you during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. By allowing babies to watch the rest of the family eat, you may encourage them to pick food in their hands and chew it on their own. This is especially important for babies who don't seem to have a particular interest in food.
Feed the baby at fixed times
Try to offer the baby food at fixed times and make sure that they are hungry when introducing new foods. Babies who are already full are unlikely to be enthusiastic about chewing new types of foods.
Help babies improve their chewing skills
Once you notice that your baby has become better at chewing and swallowing, it's important to help them improve their skills. Here are some tips for doing that effortlessly.
- Try to demonstrate to your baby how to eat with their mouth closed. This is something that babies should try and learn sooner rather than later.
- Teach babies to chew their food for a longer period of time because this will help them with digestion.
- Finally, always provide positive reinforcement when the baby does the right thing with chewing. By doing so, you will encourage them to chew and swallow correctly.
Always keep in mind that chewing is a skill that comes gradually, which means that not all babies will be mastering it at the same age. Every baby is unique, so if you notice that they have some problem showing for the first time or they're struggling with certain foods, you should always give them more time.
Practice with various foods to see what works best for your baby's first solid foods, and remember to keep them away from very hard pieces of food before they learn how to chew and swallow properly. As with most things baby related, patience always pays off.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.