If your baby is happily eating purees but turns his nose up at lumpier foods, it can be tempting to keep offering him the same old slop for the sake of an easy life. But it’s important that he learns to chew, and not just so that he gets a broader diet. Mastering the art of chewing strengthens the jaw muscles, helps with speech development, keeps his teeth healthy and enables him to share in more of the foods that you eat as a family. So how can you help him learn to chew?
Understanding the gag reflex
All babies are born with a gag, or tongue thrust, reflex, where they use their tongue to push unfamiliar objects out of their mouth. Around six months, the gag reflex begins to weaken – just one of the signs that your baby is ready for weaning. But it doesn’t disappear overnight, and until he has learnt to chew and swallow, he’s still likely to gag on lumpy foods and push them out of his mouth.
Helping him use his mouth to explore
As babies get older they naturally start to explore objects with their mouths, using their lips, tongues and gums to investigate shape and texture. Babies who have reached this stage of development tend to be ready for more solid foods. You can encourage him to develop this skill by letting him mouth baby-safe objects like teething rings, plastic toys or the handle of a wooden spoon.
Developing his muscles
Many of the muscles that your baby needs for speech are also involved in chewing. At around eight months, he’s likely to be starting to babble, so encourage those first proto-words by replying to his ‘conversations’ and engaging him in funny face games where he can imitate the silly expressions you make, giving the muscles of his jaw a workout.
Gagging is your baby’s natural defence against choking, and is an essential part of him learning to chew, so the worst thing you can do is overreact and go back to purees. Continue to give him lumpier textures and finger foods that encourage him to chew, under close supervision; the more practice he gets, the better control he’ll develop over his gag reflex.
Foods that encourage chewing
Your baby needs to be exposed to foods that need chewing in order to master the skill, so once he’s been taking purees for around three weeks, start to bulk out the consistency of the foods you offer him. Try adding well-cooked rice to a puree, mashing a favourite food like banana or apple rather than running it through the blender, and giving him finger foods to gum. At first, he’s unlikely to actually bite off a bit of cucumber or breadstick, but keep offering solid but easily chewable pieces of finger food; as he gets older, his gums will become firmer and his teeth will break through, making chewing easier.
There are eight separate factors that determine how easy – or difficult – a food is for your baby to chew. These are:
- Resistance – the amount of pressure he needs to exert to bite through the food
- Sensory input – for example the temperature and seasoning of food
- Size – thinner foods are easier to chew than thicker ones
- Shape – food cut into narrow strips tends to be more manageable for young babies than thick chunks
- Texture scatter – the extent to which the food breaks up in his mouth
- Consistency – foods that have a single consistency (like banana) tend to be more chewable than those with multiple consistencies (such as unpeeled cucumber)
- Placement – the part of the mouth your baby needs to use to bite and chew the food; side, mid-side or front
- Transfer – the amount of chewing a food needs
When you’re choosing foods to encourage your baby to chew, start with those that are easiest for him to manage – such as batons of well-cooked carrot, which are thin and narrow, don’t require much pressure to chew and break up easily in the mouth. As he becomes more adept at chewing, you can move on to trickier foods, like raw fruit and veg, meat and crackers.
When there’s a problem
Some babies have an oversensitive gag reflex – particularly those who suffer from reflux – and take longer to learn to chew and swallow foods. Many mums find their babies cope better with chewing if they’re allowed to feed themselves with finger foods, rather than spoon-feeding them, so they’re in control of the situation. Most babies outgrow their sensitive gag reflex, but if your baby reaches 12 months and is still unable to chew lumps and finger foods, speak to your health visitor.