Some babies and toddlers have a hard time learning to eat solids, table, and finger foods. When they do there are some damaging myths that must be busted so they can learn to eat!
It’s not talked about a lot. I suppose it’s rooted in the fact that a lot of doctors and professionals aren’t trained in feeding delays. For many, when babies and/or toddlers don’t want to or can’t eat table foods, the most common response is, “They’ll grow out of it.”
As a pediatric OT that has had dozens and dozens of young children on their caseload, I can assure you this may not be the case.
But, what really irks me is that we don’t hear this advice when our kids aren’t talking or walking on time. Those challenges are often met with a swift referral for more help, or even concrete suggestions parents can use at home. I suppose part of the problem is that we all take eating for granted, assuming it always comes naturally.
We may not realize that eating is also a skill. While it’s true that for most babies chewing and eating all sorts of textures comes mostly from born instinct, there are some babies and toddlers that need more help. (Stay tuned for an awesome new freebie to show you how at the end of the post.)
And, to begin to help these sweet babes, we first need to bust a couple of myths that stand in the way of progress!
Myths About Babies/Toddlers that Can’t or Refuse to Eat Table Foods
These 5 myths are spread everywhere, mostly because they seem to make sense. We draw natural conclusions to either make sense out of why our babies and toddlers aren’t doing a basic skill of life: eating. Or, we follow main stream advice that works for some babies, but not those that need more help.
Learning why these common conclusions and advice are “myths” can put you in a position to help your baby eat new foods! Let’s take a look at 5 big ones:
Myth #1: “My baby/toddler doesn’t have teeth yet, so they can’t chew.”
This is one of those myths that tend to be drawn from our own conclusions. It stands to reason that if your child doesn’t have any teeth yet, then they can’t chew. But, the fact is that the vast majority of children get their four front teeth first, and those teeth don’t help us chew. Think about the last time you ate a meatball like a bunny rabbit at the front of your mouth.
Those front teeth do help take bites off of larger pieces of food, but they aren’t entirely necessary for that skill either.
Babies and toddlers should be chewing where there molars WILL BE, on the back of their gums. For most kids, those first molars don’t come in until 13 – 19 months old. See a teeth order chart by age here.
Those molars will ultimately help grind up even tougher foods, but for now their gums were built strong and can manage chewing.
If your baby or toddler doesn’t seem to know how to chew or isn’t getting their food mashed up enough when they are eating, then they may be having a hard time with any of the following:
- Moving the tongue from side to side (an important part of chewing, called tongue lateralization)
- Knowing how to chew, sequencing the steps together
- Having the needed jaw strength to bite down through their food
- Keeping their lips closed so food doesn’t fall out of their mouth while they are chewing
All of these skills, fall under what’s called oral-motor skills. Learn about Oral Motor Exercises.
Myth #2: Focus on soft foods
Again, another myth that seems to be common sense thinking. Before taking specialized feeding education, I believed this one too. A go to food for most parents is soft bananas. The thought is that if the food is super soft it will require almost no effort to chew and will thus be totally easy to eat.
While that works for some babies, others that are having a hard time learning how to eat seem to struggle even more with soft foods because:
- they are squishy and slip around their mouth easily, making it easy to lose track of and gag on,
- they are sensitive to textures and slimy or soft foods feel uncomfortable in their mouth and on their hands, and
- they have to be chewed a few times before they’re ready to be swallowed.
It may surprise you to learn that a crunchy food that melts quickly, like puffs, are actually better to focus on. The crunchy texture is often better for kids with a sensory sensitivity and it can be felt in their mouth easily. That means they can get it on their gums and munch down. Head to How to Transition to Table Foods to learn more.
Myth #3: Focus on mixed textures
I’m blaming this myth on the baby food industry, because stage 3 baby food products almost always contain regular baby food with chunks of food in it. Babies that eat stage 3 foods happily are often just swallowing everything down whole because sorting out the bits of food to chew is an advanced skill.
When babies and toddlers are having a hard time learning to eat table foods, those chunks can make them gag and even vomit. It’s usually best to avoid them until your child is eating a variety of textures separately.
Instead of moving to mixed textures, if a child likes pureed foods, I like to slowly thicken it over time, baby cereal works great. This requires their tongue to move more to swallow and they get used to swallowing a different texture, similar to chewed food.
An important reminder at this point is to always talk to your child’s doctor about any safety concerns or delays around eating your child may have.
Myth #4: Gagging is the same as choking
It’s scary when we see our babies gag, right? It is, even for me. But, gagging and choking are two different things. Gagging is when the food hits the gag reflex and their bodies instinctively gag to get the food out of the way before it’s stuck in our throat.
Choking is when a food is stuck in the throat. When this happens there is no noise. You’re child may look panicked, but they won’t wretch forward. This rarely happens, but it’s important to avoid these common chocking hazards. Gagging, on the other hand, is very common and happens occasionally for most babies and toddlers.
Because gagging is so scary, some parents understandably want to avoid it. Head to the Baby Gagging Guide for tips and find out if you should be concerned.
Unfortunately, that may mean they don’t get enough exposure to table foods. While frequent gagging can be a warning sign that there’s some underlying issues with table and finger foods, gagging sometimes does come with this age. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and you can check out an online child CPR class to help with peace of mind.
Myth #5: Don’t worry they’ll grow out of it
Yup, I want to address the most common and blatant myth parents often hear when their babies and toddlers aren’t taking to table foods: Don’t worry they’ll grow out of it. That may be true for some kids, although I haven’t personally witnessed it, but what I have seen is many young children that don’t get help when they are 1 years old will have feeding problems that evolve into extreme picky eating.
I’m beyond frustrated when I talk with a parent of a 7 year old that’s eating less than 10 foods and they tell me that they struggled to eat table foods for a long time. Of course, the parent reached out for help, but they were met with this dangerous myth.
Babies and toddlers actually were designed to learn to eat table foods between 8 and 11 months old. A natural instinct to chew is present in most kids at this age. If your child is falling in this age range, working on some specific strategies or getting more help (like with a feeding therapist) can actually help tremendously.
That’s not to say that chewing and eating can’t be taught once this window has closed, but it will likely take a little more time. This is why being proactive matters!
What is True about Babies and Toddlers Transitioning to Table Foods
It’s easy to worry about how much food your child is eating and if they’re getting enough to grow and learn everything they need to. While we want to see a gradual progression of more eating, we don’t want to see an over emphasis on table or finger foods before their first birthday.
Milk and formula are king until 12 months of age. And, even throughout the next year, milk or formula is usually an important part of the toddlers diet. Head to How Much Milk Does a 1 Year Old Need for more info.
Try to avoid calorie counting and focus on a positive eating environment, that’s on a schedule (here’s a sample feeding schedule for 1 year olds and up).
Free 5 Big Feeding Mistakes That Are Stopping Your Child From Learning to Eat Table Foods Workshop
If your baby or toddler is struggling to learn how to eat table foods, it can be totally devastating. The problem just doesn’t seem to go away. While I hope you gained some great insights and suggestions in this post, I’ve got a lot more coming next week in my brand new and totally free workshop: 5 Big Feeding Mistakes That Are Stopping Your Child From Learning to Eat Table Foods Workshop.
I’m going to reveal my unique 5 step plan with you and I’ll send a free workbook to your inbox!
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.