Is your baby or toddler gagging on foods all of a sudden? Does your toddler chew food and spit it out? Or, your baby won’t put food in their mouth? Find out what’s normal and what’s not from a pediatric occupational therapist.
One of the most popular reasons parents find their way to Your Kid’s Table is because their baby or toddler isn’t eating baby food, table food, or both. Obviously, this is a huge area of concern for parents. These refusals are usually a red flag that something deeper is going on with their eating, and if it isn’t addressed, it could lead to long years of picky eating and feeding difficulties that causes the whole family stress.
I’ve helped so many families of 2, 4, 6, 8, or even 12 year olds that are in a really desperate spot, and one of the first questions I ask (even for a 12 year old) is, “How did they transition to table foods?”
It gives me a clue as to how eating got so out of control! Because if a baby or toddler gagged a lot or started to all of a sudden, or if they refused to eat it’s a sign that they have some difficulties that have caused challenging mealtimes for years.
I really want to help parents like you avoid that!
So, let’s talk about 8 different feeding red flags for babies and young toddlers and what you can do to help your child.
8 Feeding Red Flags for Babies and Toddlers
#1. Baby Refuses Baby Food
Not all babies love the mushy pureed stuff, and many don’t gobble it down jar after jar the way other babies do. But when a baby consistently refuses and even becomes upset when presented with baby food, it is usually a red flag that there may be some sensory sensitivity.
While babies don’t need to eat baby food and can focus on table foods it’s important for them to learn to tolerate using a spoon and eat purees like yogurt, soup, and applesauce as they get older.
Head to my baby won’t eat solids to learn a step-by-step plan to help your baby eat pureed baby food!
#2. Baby Refuses Table Food
Often when babies refuse pureed foods, logically, parents will start trying table foods. In fact, that is just what I would recommend. However, if a baby is refusing pureed foods because of the mushy texture, they also may not be too keen on bananas or avocados.
Or, some babies love baby food, but want nothing to do with table food. There’s a way to help babies and toddlers transition to finger foods.
I always recommend starting with a dry and crunchy melt-able like baby puffs. If a baby is steadily refusing those and all other foods, then that is a clear indication that something else is going on.
#3. Baby or Toddler Gags at sight, touch, taste of baby food or table food repeatedly
Some gagging when touching or trying new foods is normal, but if your baby or toddler does this every time, then it’s a strong indicator that they are sensitive to different textures. Or, yes it’s possible your toddler gags at the sight of food alone.
This is because they’re imagining what that texture is going to taste or feel like.
It’s important (and very possible) to work with your child is a slow, but steady pace to help them desensitize to the textures that causing them to gag. Get an entire guide to toddler and baby gagging. You’ll find tips for how to move past it.
#4. Gags, spits food out, or seems to choke repeatedly when trying to chew or swallow food
There’s a difference between gagging when first interacting with a food and gagging when trying to eat.
Gagging or spitting food out after the baby has started eating tends to indicate that a baby may be having difficulty coordinating the actions of chewing and/or swallowing. These are called their oral motor skills.
Some babies and toddlers need help learning to chew. Learn how to help your child with oral motor exercises (free printable included).
#5. Baby or Toddler is only interested in nursing or bottle feeding at 8 months old or later
By 8 months old, at the very latest, babies should be showing some interest in some type of food (puree, soft table foods, or crunchy foods). If they don’t despite repeated attempts you would want to consider they have a texture sensitivity, oral motor difficulty, or a possible medical issue like food allergies, silent reflux, or a tongue tie, to name a few.
Make sure you talk to your pediatrician and see a pediatric GI to rule out any physical difficulties you might not be aware of.
#6. Baby or Toddler won’t feed themselves with their fingers and/or spoon or fork
Sometimes children aren’t able to coordinate the action of using a spoon or fork. Of course, I don’t expect a 6 month old to be able to feed themselves much, but they should be attempting to finger feed at a minimum.
When a child at 6, 9, or 14 months old refuses to feed themselves with fingers or utensils it’s a red flag that they either can’t coordinate the movement required or that they’re too sensitive to textures so they’re avoiding getting messy or having utensils in their mouth.
Either way, you can learn how to teach your child to feed themself.
#7. Only will eat when watching a screen or other distractions
If a young baby or toddler is only able to eat by being distracted by a tablet, TV, phone, or a parent standing on their head trying to entertain them, then they again are lacking the intrinsic motivation to eat, which can happen for a variety of reasons. (See the big 5 reasons babies and toddler’s won’t eat.)
It’s a big bright red flag that something more is going on. Older toddlers and children can fall into this pattern for other reasons, but babies that have never been fed successfully another way, often need help to address the root of the problem.
Again, this is often underlying medical issues, sensory sensitivities, and/or oral motor difficulties.
#8. Doesn’t mouth on toys or chew on found items
I often hear from parents, “I thought it was so great that my baby never put anything in his mouth.”
On the surface, that does seem awesome, but there is a reason babies do that. It desensitizes their mouth to different textures, helps build their jaw, tongue, and lip muscles needed for eating, and they get to practice chewing. If your child never did this and has one of the other red flags, it is likely that there are some underlying difficulties.
Busted Myths about Babies and Toddlers Eating…
Myth #1: My baby isn’t eating because they don’t have teeth
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent say their child isn’t eating because they don’t have any teeth yet…. Well, you know how the rest goes! I hear this a lot, and I know that seems like good logic, but I want to shout from the roof tops: Babies and toddlers don’t need teeth to eat successfully.
Really, I’m not kidding!
Think about the first teeth babies get, which is anywhere from 6-14 months old. They are the front teeth. We don’t use our front teeth to chew, and babies shouldn’t be either. Their gums are strong and they should be chewing on them, right where their molars will be. It could be a year later before those molars come in.
Of course the gums aren’t strong enough to chew steak or raw carrots, that’s why we don’t give those foods to babies.
Otherwise babies and young toddlers were designed to eat successfully at meals without teeth.
Other foods they shouldn’t eat because they don’t have a teeth and are a choking hazard are:
- other tough meats
- most other raw veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and celery
They need teeth and more advanced chewing skills to manage all of those foods. Other than those tough foods and a few choking hazards like grapes and hotdogs, babies are able to eat a wide variety of foods without teeth.
Myth #2: They will grow out of it
I hear this A LOT too! But, it’s not from the parents of babies that are under 15 months old. It is from the parents of 2, 5, 8 year olds plus.
While some parents do arrive at this conclusion on their own because they honestly didn’t know what else to do, sadly, most of the time, parents had a gut feeling something more was going on, but their pediatrician told them, “Don’t worry, she is healthy, she’ll grow out of it.”
I’m not trying to knock pediatrician’s here, they are amazing and I have had the privilege of working with some amazing ones, both personally and professionally. Unfortunately, many receive very little advanced training in feeding difficulties that aren’t causing medical problems or weight loss.
If you see one of these signs do some research, push for help, or tap into our resources here so you can be supported!
When it’s Time to Get Professional Help
Generally speaking, if your child has two or more of the red flags listed above, I would highly recommend getting a feeding evaluation, which is usually completed by OT’s (like myself) or speech and language pathologists. However, in a lot of cases, only one of these red flags is enough to warrant an evaluation.
If your baby is not eating any foods by 9 months of age or no table foods by 11 months of age, I would also strongly encourage a feeding evaluation.
More importantly though, if you feel like you don’t know how to help your child and something in your gut is telling you that there’s more going on, then get some help. You will be glad you did.
*Please keep in mind that babies born prematurely or present with developmental disabilities may be on a different timeline. Also, every child is unique and this information is tended to be a guide for parents to make decisions about potential interventions to help their child. If you still aren’t sure if your child needs more help, leave a comment below.
Where to Get Eating Help for Your Baby or Toddler
We specialize in helping babies and toddlers eat well. It’s so important to address it sooner than later because the older a child gets the more ingrained the challenges become.
We have an online program designed for babies and toddlers struggling to eat table foods called Table Food School and another one for picky eaters called Mealtime Works. Plus, we have two free workshops:
- Click here for a free workshop to help babies and toddlers learn to eat table foods
- Click here to a free workshop to help picky eaters (toddlers and older)
If you’re in the states you can also look into early intervention. What’s covered varies by state, but the evaluation is often free for kids 0-3 years old. Feeding therapy may also be an option. Check with your individual insurance company first to schedule at a private clinic, outpatient facility, or children’s hospital.
Learn to Eat Table Foods Printable for Babies and Toddlers
Want some concrete tips in your hand right now? I have a free printable that will help give you some direction and ease your worries. It’s for parents that are struggling to get your toddler or baby to eat table foods. I’ll send it right to your inbox:
More on Babies and Toddlers Eating
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 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.