So you’ve decided your baby is ready for solid food. Congratulations! If I could reach through the screen, I’d give you a complimentary rain poncho. You’re going to need it.

But rather than try to keep things neat and tidy, would it make you feel better to know that all of that food smearing, throwing and spitting serves an important developmental purpose?IMG_8962

Here are some of the functions of a few of our baby’s less desirable feeding behaviors:

Spitting or letting food out of the mouth

  • Babies have a tongue thrust reflex that often causes them to spit food out of their mouths. You can read more about that in this post. All of this food spitting gives you a great opportunity to help develop your baby’s mental map of where the mouth and lips are. Scraping food off the mouth area with a spoon using firm pressure gives input to the muscles and joints of the mouth. These sensory inputs go to the brain where Baby is building a mental picture of where body parts are located. Baby can’t see his mouth, he can only feel it, and the input he gets from the spoon helps him to define his own “mouth” parameters.
  • As Baby gets a little older, you can encourage her to stick out her tongue and try to lick food off her face. You do this by sticking out your own tongue and moving it to the mirrored location on your own face. She may not get all (or any) of the food, but two very important things will be happening: 1) She mimics you. Mimicking is the basis of learning – motor, speech, social and academic; 2) She starts to develop better control over the giant muscle that is the tongue. Moving food around, licking, protruding and making mouth sounds all lead towards speech. Babies need practice developing their unconscious knowledge of where their tongues are and what their tongues are doing at any point in time. You cannot use your eyes to compensate for the lack of that type of sensory information, unless you were to carry around a mirror.
  • When your baby gets food all over his mouth/forehead/ears/eyebrows/etc., you now have an opportunity to teach him the parts of the head and face. If he splatters cereal on his forehead, say “you have cereal on your forehead!” and wipe it off. As baby gets older, encourage him to try to touch the besmeared area. Now you’re encouraging vocabulary and the continued development of his body map. DSC_9668

Smearing rice cereal/oatmeal/(insert gummy substance here) all over the highchair tray/table/eating surface

  • Baby learns that the hand can act upon an object – first the cereal is over here, I swipe my hand, and now it’s over there. Amazing!
  • Your baby will develop from smearing food with his whole hand to smearing with only his index finger somewhere between 9 and 12 months. This action is the beginning of finger isolation (the ability to move each finger one at a time). Finger isolation is required to manipulate small objects and to complete countless everyday activities, such as tying shoes and writing.
  • All of this food on Baby’s hands has a unique feeling that she has to receive, interpret, sort and make some sort of decision about. Baby can first learn if the tactile characteristics of the food (texture, temperature, density, viscosity) are going to hurt her. Then she needs to decide if she likes the characteristics, or if she can even tolerate them. If she wants the food off her hand, she has to do something. For example, wipe it off on to another surface, shake her hand to splatter it off, wipe it off with her other hand, look for help, cry.

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Licking or sucking on fingers

  • Baby also develops finger isolation when licking individual fingers, as well as using refined tongue movements.
  • It also takes motor control and coordination to get Baby’s fingers into her mouth, and it takes the knowledge of where her mouth is (body map) and the direction in which her hand is moving. The action of putting her hand in her mouth is fabricated only by the maps she has in her mind and the sensory inputs she gets from her joints and muscles as they move through space. The more she practices bringing things to her mouth, the more automatic her knowledge will be of where her mouth is and how to get there.

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Dumping the food out of the bowl

  • Dumping is another way Baby learns about the world. Understanding that one object, like a bowl, can hold another object, like Cheerios, takes a lot of repetition.
  • The good news is that picking up those little Cheerios helps Baby to develop his grasp. Somewhere between 6 and 9 months, he will be able to use the sides of his thumb and pointer finger to pick up small food objects. As he grows older, this grasp should refine to the tips of his thumb and pointer finger.

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If you don’t like a mess, simply protect yourself and your stuff. Strip baby down to the diaper. Lay plastic on the floor. Get a dog. Wear that poncho I referred to before. Letting your baby make a mess with his food does not mean you’ll have a child with poor table manners. Instead, you’re helping to send the signal that mealtime is SAFE and FUN and an opportunity to try new things.

A lot of messiness with eating is typical, but if you feel your child is excessively messy – food is constantly dripping out of a gaping mouth, excessive spitting up/throwing up while feeding, tantrums at every meal time – discuss these concerns with your doctor or another trusted health professional.

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