Learn how to teach your baby to chew with these 5 surprising tips! I’m also talking about chewing problems in toddlers…
It’s one of those things we take for granted or don’t think about much. We assume our babies will know how to chew when it comes time to feed them. And, while that’s certainly the case for a lot of babies, it isn’t for all. Some babies seem to have no interest or can’t figure out what they need to be doing when that food hits their tongue.
Sometimes a little practice is all that’s needed, other times, it turns into a road block and a baby will want to keep sucking down their milk around the clock or swallowing mashed baby food whole.
But, chewing is important for babies and toddlers. And, just like walking and talking, you can teach your baby how to chew!
What If I Don’t See My Baby Chewing?
It’s important not to panic if you don’t see your baby chewing though. Sometimes, they really do need a little more time, especially if they were born at 38 weeks or less.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re watching your baby closely while they’re eating because it can be really easy to miss the little munching up and down inside their tiny mouths. Plus, you likely won’t see any chewing at all on baby food.
What you do want to see, even by 6 months old, is that they’re chewing on toys and teethers, frequently. And, if you don’t, then you’re in the right place to learn how to help your baby start chewing.
When Should a Baby Start Chewing?
Babies begin to chew on their hands, toys, and teethers around 4 – 6 months old. Typically, babies become obsessed with putting everything in their mouth. It’s a bit of a stressful time for parents because they won’t discriminate between that gross fuzzy or piece of dog food they found on the floor.
But, this is how they explore the world at this age, through their mouth!
As they put the toys into their mouth, you’ll probably see them moving it from side to side and biting up and down. They will get a lot of practice chewing like this so that, by 7-8 months, they are ready to begin chewing some real foods at meals.
Just like with any milestone, it’s totally normal for babies to need some more time. It may not be until 9 or 10 months when they figure the whole chewing thing out. But, we do look for chewing and eating table foods by 11 months.
The cool thing is that if babies have practiced chewing on teethers and toys, there’s a window between 8 and 11 months when they instinctively know how to chew. That’s not to say they’ll never chew if they haven’t begun by 12 months or later, but it will take more direct teaching. That’s where the tips below will be even more critical!
Check out Feeding Milestones to learn more about when your child “should” be eating what.
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5 Tips to Teach Baby to Chew
These tips will set the foundation for and help your baby learn to chew. They’re perfect whether you’re looking to take a proactive approach and help your baby transition smoothly to eating table foods, or, if your concerns are growing because your baby, or toddler, isn’t chewing yet.
If you’re in the latter situation, these tips are just the tip of the iceberg, there are more advanced strategies. If you feel you need more support, as an occupational therapist myself, I’d recommend looking into feeding therapy.
1. Use Teethers and Toys: As you just learned, all that practice babies do while chewing on teethers and toys is important. It’s laying the groundwork for them to eventually eat foods. But, some babies skip this step. Sometimes, it’s because of the way toys feel in their mouth and they don’t like it so they avoid it, this is due to their sensory processing. If you suspect this is the cause, then read more in sensory issues with food.
Other babies avoid teethers because it’s tiring and difficult. In this case, it’s probably because of their oral motor skills.
And yet, other babies won’t use them because they just aren’t interested. No matter what the reason is, it’s important that you encourage and demonstrate chewing on teethers often.
If they allow you bring the teether up to their mouth, or if they like baby food, you can even dip some of the teether into the baby food for them to lick off! Try different styles of teethers and toys, there are a ton. This is one of my favorites.
Head over to Why Your Baby Should Be Putting Toys in Their Mouth for more.
2. Practice on Large Foods: If your baby won’t go for the teethers, another option is to use large pieces of food that they can’t eat, but can mouth on. Think about a whole, peeled carrot or a long stalk of celery. Again, you can dip these in baby food or just let your baby explore it.
Use these large pieces of food while they’re seated in their high chair, at the same time you’re eating! If your baby already has teeth, make sure they can’t get any pieces off though, if they can, you’ll have to skip this step because they don’t have the skills to chew hard foods like that yet.
3. Demonstrate: You’ll be putting yourself ahead of the game if you can coordinate when your baby is eating, even if it’s just baby food, with your mealtimes. When you have just one child it can be tempting to feed them at a separate time, but in that shared meal time, they are learning a lot.
Not to mention that down the road it will save you frustration over getting them on a mealtime routine.
Plus, as you sit and eat together your baby is watching you, even if it seems they aren’t. They are see how you chew and will want to imitate it. To really show them how to chew, you’ll want to put one piece of food in your mouth at a time and dramatically chew for them – WITH – your mouth open.
Yes, I know it’s gross, but nobody else is watching, and if they are who cares, you’re teaching your baby!
4. Brush Their Gums/Teeth: One of my favorite tips to encourage chewing is to start brushing your baby or toddler’s gums 2 times a day with an infant toothbrush, like this one. While this sounds like a strange suggestion, it helps them get used to having something else in their mouth and it stimulates movement in their tongue.
Tongue movement is critical for chewing, and many kiddos struggling to chew aren’t moving their tongue well.
This brushing, with a firm pressure, also prepares the mouth for accepting more textures and even helps to desensitize the gag reflex!
5. Give Them the Right Foods: Lastly, once they are around 8 months old, it’s time to start trying some real foods. You’ll want to skip stage 3 baby foods that have the mixed chunks in them. That’s a difficult texture for a lot of babies, some will gag, some will throw up, and some will spit out the chunks or hold them in their mouth.
Instead, you’ll want to focus on crunchy foods that melt easily. Think puffs, graham crackers, and rice husks. In any grocery store you can find a mountain of these stage 1 table foods that are perfect to help babies learn to chew.
Head over to how to transition to table foods to learn next steps.
Chewing Problems in Toddlers
It’s common for me to see toddlers that missed that window for learning to chew and are still struggling to at up to 2 years old and even beyond. If that’s your child, know that it’s never to late to teach them how to chew.
For one and two year olds specifically, all of the above tips are still appropriate and will help bridge that gap to chewing. But, if your child is over 12 months and is only drinking milk or eating baby foods, it’s time to look for some more help. If you’re in the states, you may qualify for free early intervention.
And, the same difficulties I listed above for babies not wanting to chew on teethers, applies to difficulty eating. It could be sensory, oral motor, or even medical based. You can learn more in 5 Reasons Kids Don’t Eat.
Get More Help in This Free Workshop
To learn more about teaching your baby to eat, grab a free seat in my workshop: 5 Big Feeding Mistakes That Are Stopping Your Child From Learning to Eat Table Foods. You’ll learn exactly what NOT to do and even more tips to get your baby or toddler on the path to eating well. We’ll send you a free printable workbook in your inbox too!
More on Feeding Babies and Toddlers
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.