You are looking at a picture of Sam (who is now nearly 3) while he was in the middle of eating his prunes around 7 months old. I know he is very messy! I hope that you have pictures of your babies covered in their food too (I actually have ones worse than this). But, I fear that many of you don’t. Are you a face scraper? Don’t want to mess up that cute little outfit? Hey, I know where you are coming from, as a classic type-A personality myself. Thank goodness my years as a therapist primed me for all the messy moments I have with my own kids now.
Recently, we were at a party and while I was feeding Isaac a friend with a baby close in age to Isaac walked by with his mouth opened and said, “Oh my gosh, You let him get messy like that? You let him feed himself?” Before I respond, I look back at Isaac and observe that he has his entire hand in the container of applesauce he is eating and that it is smeared on his ear and the side of his face. In his other hand, he has a noodle from the pasta salad, I had several on his tray. It is funny because I had just been looking at him, but I don’t even think about the mess, even at a party. Isaac was having a great time and was eating so well (something he doesn’t always do). He was taking that pudgy little hand with applesauce all over it and putting it in his mouth! I gave our friend a very watered down response to why you should let your baby get messy, he was in the middle of hosting his daughter’s birthday party. It got me thinking of all the friends and families I work with and how many times I have had this discussion. So, I thought it warranted a post, because it is very important to let your babies (and kids) get messy! Read on to find out why and how you can take baby steps into tolerating the mess (and hopefully embracing it).
Usually when you first start feeding a baby cereal, they are fairly easy to keep clean, since they aren’t moving around too much. Over the next few months they start swiping the spoon and blowing raspberries in their food. It can get messy in a hurry, for everybody! I know this can be overwhelming and letting them get messy may seem like more work than it’s worth. Some parents I work with feel like it’s neglectful to let their child sit there with food all over them, even if it is during the meal. I am here to say, throw out the towel (literally) and let them get messy. Let the food get on their hands, in their hair, and all over their face (and don’t make any disgusting faces while they are doing it). Here are four really good reasons why:
1. Powerful Sensory Play
Meal times with babes are about more than eating. Besides learning all sorts of social and cultural norms, it is some of their first active sensory play. Think about it, you can’t put your 7 month old in the sand box or use finger paints because they will eat it. The tactile stimulation you get from playing in messy textures provides loads of meaningful information to the brain that children process and create more sophisticated responses to. Babies and children will actively seek these experiences out as part of curiosity, discovery, exploration, and the drive to experience sensory input.
2. Learning How to Self Feed
When babies get their hands messy in the baby food, it will eventually dawn on them that when they put their fingers in their mouth they get some food. A light bulb will go off, “Hey, I can feed myself”. It will likely be months before they are spoon feeding themselves, but those early tastes from their own fingers will set the groundwork for this skill and they will likely accomplish it much sooner! If your baby is getting messy and not putting their hand up to their mouth when it’s covered in dinner, take your hand and show them how.
3. Preventing Tactile Defensiveness
When kids aren’t exposed to different textures, they can become sensitive to new or different textures over time. If you keep your baby very clean during meals, they may reach a point when getting messy feels uncomfortable because it such a foreign sensation to them. This is not to say that all tactile defensiveness is taught, mostly it is not. Kids that are born tactile defensive will show signs early on as a baby. The constant wiping with a spoon or napkin to keep the baby clean can actually be more uncomfortable for them.
4. Making it Positive
If you have been following this blog then you know how much importance I place on keeping mealtimes positive (check out my series on this here, here, and here). Letting babies get messy keeps a more laid back flow to the whole meal and thus is more positive. If you are fighting with your baby so they don’t grab the spoon or trying to pin them down to wipe their face off after each bite, meal time might not be so positive for baby.
If you wipe your baby’s face constantly or don’t let them help feed themselves, you are depriving them of a wonderful learning and sensory experience. Sorry, I know that sounds harsh. The good news is that it’s not too late to let them start to get messy. As they creep into life as a toddler, you do have start teaching table manners and it may not be a great idea to let them squeeze and slop their food around just for the sake of playing. But, if they are getting messy just from the act of eating than let it go and while they are younger toddlers a little of the messy play is ok as long as it isn’t too distracting. If you notice your toddler is trying to play with their food a lot, provide them with opportunities to finger paint and play in various sensory bins.
Try to Avoid:
- Taking the spoon and scraping the food that has dribbled out off your babies face. This can be so uncomfortable or irritating. Let the mess be!
- Wiping tray off frequently. If some mess slops on the tray let it go unless it is interfering with finger feeding. Letting babies slop the mess around with their hands is wonderful sensory play!
- Wiping hands or face with a napkin throughout the meal. They are washable! Repeat after me, “It is ok if sweet potatoes are in their hair and behind their ears, it is ok.”
- Allow your baby or toddler to get messy as long as it doesn’t interfere with their ability to see (they wipe their eyes with a messy hand) or feed themselves.
- Wait to the end of the meal to clean up. If your baby doesn’t like getting cleaned, try to take them away from the high chair so they have the positive association from the meal not the getting cleaned up part.
- Consider giving the baby their bath after a particularly messy meal. Most babies love bath time, and it is often the easiest way to get them clean.