It’s critical that babies go through months of exploring toys and teethers with their mouths. Learn why and how, how to help them if they’re not, and what the consequence could be if they don’t learn how.
Is it weird that my baby won’t put toys in their mouth?
It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, and as odd it may seem to you, it doesn’t at all seem too odd to me. And, if you’ve noticed, give yourself a pat on the back because a lot of parents miss it.
It’s actually REALLY important that babies put toys, their hands, and teethers into their mouth at any early age and continue to do so for months. It’s so important, that years later when I’m helping a picky eater, I always ask the question, “Did they put toys in their mouth as a baby?” Because, if they didn’t, it indicates to me where at least some of the feeding troubles began!
So, I’m glad you’re here because there’s a lot to learn about why babies should be putting toys in their mouth, why it’s so important, and how you can help them begin to do this beneficial development skill.
Why It’s So Important for Babies and Toddlers to Put Toys in Their Mouth
More times than I can count, I sat across from a mom and dad that were worried and overwhelmed because their baby and toddler had not begun to eat real foods. And, as I asked them about their child putting toys into their mouth, they would say, “No, they don’t do that, and we thought it was a good thing because we didn’t have to worry about them putting something unsafe into their mouth.”
Well, that’s true.
It is utterly nerve racking making sure your baby isn’t eating lint, dog food, or the remote control.
Initially, it may seem like a gift, one less thing you have to worry about. But, the truth is that babies mouth on those toys and random objects for a reason. It’s like they have an internal drive to explore with their mouth. They were literally designed to!
That motivation is important because it prepares babies, and then toddlers, for eating. When a baby is mouthing on their hands or a toy, they’re getting a ton of benefits like:
- Experiencing different textures, which helps them accept a range of textures of food
- Desensitizes the very sensitive gag reflex that babies are born with, which helps them move food around in their mouth better
- Builds strength in their jaw, tongue, and cheeks (aka oral motor skills) as they give those muscles a work out, which is critical for eating
- Practice chewing, which is the first step to teaching them how to chew their foods
You can see that babies mouthing on toys and teethers is crucial for learning to eat table foods. Without going through this stage, many babies refuse or gag and spit out table foods when they’re introduced.
What It Means If Your Baby Is NOT Putting Toys in Their Mouth
At this point, you’re probably freaking out if your baby isn’t putting toys in their mouth or never did, but hang on a second, we’re going to get to some strategies to help your baby or toddler.
First though, you’re probably wondering why your baby never showed that motivation many other babies do to explore their world with their mouth. Well, there’s a few different reasons:
- Sensory sensitivity – Which simply means that a child may not want to experience the way a toy feels in their mouth. This has to do with the way their brain is perceiving sensations, and this is highly unique. The good news is that this can be worked through. And, when this is the culprit, your child will often push your hands away if you try to put anything in their mouth for them. Learn more about sensory sensitivity.
- Difficulty bringing toys to their mouth – Some kids have some muscle or coordination weakness that make it physically hard for them to bring toys to their mouth. In this case, you’ll usually see your child try a few times before giving up.
- Difficulty chewing on toys – In the same way, some kids have muscle or coordination weakness in the muscles in their mouth. So, when they bring the toy to their mouth, it’s too exhausting to chew on it. You’ll often see babies that are not motivated to bring things to their mouth, if this is the cause.
- Not interested – And for a variety of reasons, some babies seem to lack that natural interest in bringing toys to their mouth, and while there may not be any reason for that initially, with the lack of exposure, it can cause feeding issues in the near future.
Truly any baby can be faced with any of these challenges with no good explanation. But, we do see kids that have been born prematurely or have developmental delays that have a high frequency of not mouthing on toys.
How to Help Your Baby Learn to Explore With Their Mouth
Whether your baby is 6 months old or you have a toddler that is 18 months old, if they aren’t or didn’t mouth on toys, it’s extremely likely that they’re feeding skills are affected. So it’s important to show them how to start bringing items to their mouth, even if they’re a toddler, this is still appropriate as it will help them transition to table foods, since so many of these kiddos are stuck on milk or baby food.
1. What I like to do first is simply start by interacting with your child and playing some “games” where you touch their cheeks, lips, or mouth. With a baby or toddler, this is pretty easy. They can be sitting on your lap or across from you on the floor. Think about singing a simple nursery rhyme or counting as you touch them briefly around their mouth.
I know it sounds a little strange, but if your child doesn’t bring anything to their mouth, they may be a little sensitive and this type of play helps get them ready to tolerate actual objects near their mouth.
I also like to give kisses and squish their cheeks often. And, I have to mention that if your child is eating baby food, to allow them to get messy as possible. Read why letting babies and toddlers get messy is important. Then, when it’s time to clean them up, use a wet wash cloth to firmly wipe their cheeks off.
2. Get a variety of different types of teethers out and have them available. Sometimes when our child has refused them a few times, we simply don’t pull them back out again. Your baby might be interested now and pick one up on their own.
I also like to hand them a teether when they’re sitting in their high chair. They can’t go anywhere and may be more likely to at least bring it to their mouth!
3. It’s time to show them how to bring the teether to their mouth. Make sure you have good eye contact and show them how you touch it to your lips. Hand them a teether and show them a few more times – will they imitate?
Be patient with this because most babies and toddlers need to see something many times, so this could take a few days. Persistence is key here. Just keep trying over and over again! You may need to put this time on the schedule for 3 times a day for just a few minutes each time. As soon as they start to copy you, then move onto demonstrating how to put it in your mouth and bite on it!
4. If you’re child is still not mimicking what you’re doing in a few days, then you’ll want to take the teether to their mouth for them. See if they’ll hold it and let you guide their hand to their mouth. After the modeling that you’ve been doing and frequent touching of their face, your baby might be ready for this, but others may bat your hand away as soon as it gets close to their mouth, that’s okay.
It just may take some practice. So, again, you’ll want to continue 3-4 times a day of just trying to offer these teethers. And, I’d still continue to demonstrate for them as well.
It’s important to offer a couple of different types of teethers with different textures as your child may gravitate towards one. However, once they are bringing a teether to their mouth, you’ll want to encourage them to do the same with different ones and other toys so they’re getting a variety of textures and sensations in their mouth.
This whole process can take a couple of weeks, and in some cases longer.
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My Favorite Teething Toys to Ultimately Help Babies Eat
While there really isn’t a “wrong” teether to use, there are some that can be particularly helpful and that I like to use as a feeding therapist. So if you’re looking to grab some new ones, these are my top picks:
- Zoli bunny teether – I love this teether because it’s easy for babies to handle, to clean, and those two bunny ear heads can get far enough back on the gums so they can get some good chewing practice and make that gag reflex less sensitive.
- Vibrating teething star – When your baby bites down, this teether vibrates! This is incredible sensory input for their mouth, plus it gives them a powerful cause and effect connection so they keep biting more. Some babies will be sensitive to vibration, at least at first.
Beyond Toys, Using Some Other Clever Tools…
Besides toys and teethers, there are some other objects that you can encourage your baby or toddler to put in their mouth, like their hands! This is how babies usually start to explore with their mouth around 3-4 months old.
Their hands will be much less obtrusive because it’s part of them, they have full control. So you can think about playing a game where you model tapping your lips, putting a finger in your mouth, and then all your fingers. You can make it quick so it’s fun, and if your baby likes baby food, just dip their finger in a little bit of baby food and help them get their finger to their mouth!
Perfect way to spend a few minutes while they’re in their highchair.
Another tool to use is a toothbrush, many parents don’t start brushing teeth until a year old or even older. That’s usually not an issue, but getting a toothbrush or a baby gum massager (the thing you slide over your finger) can also help them get used to having something foreign in their mouth!
Baby Struggling With Table Foods?
Now you know why your baby isn’t putting toys and teething toys into their mouth, this isn’t just a quirk! It’s a sign actually, to let you know they need some help with this stage.
But, there’s a lot more you can do to help get them eating table foods. To help get you started, I’ve got a free Learn to Eat Table Foods printable pack for you. All you need to do is click the link below and I’ll send it right over to your inbox. Easy peasy!
And, if you’ve got any questions about your babe, just ask them in the comments below! I love hearing from YOU:)
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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.