As an occupational therapist who works in feeding, one question that frequently comes up is “how do I help my child learn to chew food?” Difficulty transitioning to solid foods is a common reason children come for feeding therapy. If this struggle sounds familiar to you, you are not alone! Here are a few things I like to consider when I hear a child is struggling with learning to chew:
Create interest through hunger
Often as parents we become SO concerned with calories that we forget the importance of hunger. Hunger supports the development of intrinsic motivation to try new foods. If we are providing milk, drink supplements, or pureed food pouches too often, it is likely the child is not coming to the table hungry. Hunger naturally increases interest in food: it smells better and tastes better when we are hungry. So, step one, make sure your child has not eaten within a 2-3-hour window before sitting them down to the meal. We do not want them hangry, but we do need hunger!
Opportunity and modeling
I often notice that a child is struggling with chewing because they are not given the opportunity. It is important to remember that chewing is a LEARNED motor skill, just like learning to crawl or walk. Think about how many times your child fell and stumbled when learning to walk; motor skills happen through practice! It takes children years to become proficient chewers, so rest assured it will happen, but they need opportunities every day, at every meal. Also, model for your child! Sometimes the best thing we can do is just sit and enjoy the food ourselves. Children learn through watching.
If you feel nervous about solid foods and you avoid them, it is difficult for children to attain the oral-motor skills that can only be achieved through food exposure. It is likely your child senses your fear and will become nervous themselves, decreasing the chance they will try the food and get in that practice. I always advise parents to take courses in CPR (which teach the Heimlich) to decrease choking concerns and ease fear. Staying calm is paramount to a successful mealtime.
We can set our children up for success by choosing foods that are the “just right challenge.” Decrease the risk of choking by avoiding foods that are small and round (the shape of our esophagus). For example, if you provide grapes or blueberries, be sure to quarter the grapes and half the blueberries. Also, if you want to provide a highly resistive food such as raw carrot or apple present it grated or very thinly cut like a matchstick. My favorite foods for promoting chewing are long, stick shapes; these foods naturally promote placement on the molar ridge where we are supposed to chew food. It also assists in getting children’s tongues to lateralize to the food (a motor skill we use to chew), and stick shaped foods are generally safer than chopped foods. Some of my favorite sticks of foods include: roasted spears of vegetables (zucchini, asparagus, butternut squash), spears of cucumber, string cheese (think stick shapes!). I also love to provide large slices of mango, avocado, or bananas (bananas naturally quarter if you gently pull them apart). You’ll notice that I don’t mention crackers or processed foods, which is intentional. It is so important we assist our little ones in learning to love whole foods first, so we can avoid picky eating and preferences for salty, and crunchy food only (a notoriously easy thing to fall into with toddlers). Of course, you can provide those foods sometimes (we all eat for pleasure!) but make it the exception to the norm if you can.
If by 12-months your child is not consuming table foods, or you have tried all these things and your child is still struggling, consider seeking help from someone who works with children in the area of feeding. Occupational therapists and speech therapists are trained to assess and provide treatment for feeding delays. We know that the sooner we set children up for success the better they do in the long run!