Can’t stand a messy baby? It can mean some more work, but it is worth it in more ways than you may think…
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: 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’re 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.
This 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).
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’s 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 to 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, then 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.
Was that a good sales pitch? Did I win over any other neat freaks type-A’s (like myself) that want their kids to be clean? If I can do it, so can you! Embrace the mess!
Feeling inspired? Head to my epic list of Messy Play ideas that are easy and awesome for your child’s development!
More on Messy Play And Baby Eating
The Ultimate List of Baby/Toddler Meal Ideas
Ultimate List of Sensory Bin Ideas, Incredibly Easy!
The Ultimate Guide to Feeding Milestones for Babies and Toddlers
What You Need to Know About Baby Gagging (+ Expert Tips)
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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.
Very helpful to read as the grandmother of one year old twins, one of whom has a sensory feeding issue. We have incorporated most of this, but it’s good reinforcement. We play music during mealtimes and try and just relax. We plan for longer mealtimes that are child focused. Even at Disney we had some fun times with this, but ultimately, we know that cleaning up a little mess is well worth the sight of seeing our little ones shoving food into their mouths! They need to eat 🙂
Thank you so much for sharing that Nana, that’s so helpful for other’s to read. What an awesome grandmother you are!
Very nice breakdown. This seems obvious, but sometimes we need a reminder. I believe that self feeding is particularly important. Great advice all around.
Santiago – CEO and Founder of RaisedReal.com
I wish I read your info before. My little boy is 20 months & out of high chair since 17 months (to big table).
I’m struggling with the mess & more Than anything keeping him one place a minute. I’m very worried he is not getting enough nutrition.
Can you pl give some tips
Hi Subha, I know this can be a really challenging time. I’d highly recommend checking out my article index: http://www.yourkidstable.com/articles Scroll through that list, it has every article of mine, and there are a few on how to keep your kiddo seated. I’d just give a little food at a time, that will help minimize the mess. Let me know if you have more questions after checking out more:)
Hello, thank you very much for your articles, I find them really helpful.
I was wondering – do you think the “no sitting, no solids” applies to all babies? My son was born three months before the due date. I was advised to start solids fairly soon, mainly because of low nutrient stores in his body (which are normally built during the last trimester). Particularly his iron level was low and his iron supplements gave him severe constipation. I waited a bit more than the doctor suggested and at around 5-6 months corrected age (i.e. 8-9 biological age) i introduced solids.
He is now 8 months corrected age and still not sitting by himself. I would love to let him self-feed but its difficult to find a suitable position. On the other hand, waiting for him to sit first would mean waiting for 2 months more (guessing), so he would be almost one year old at that point with no solids. This just does not seem right to me (from nutritional view as well as in order for him to get used to different food than milk). He shows BIG interest in food, in us eating, in us drinking from cups. What is your opinion? Are you convinced he should not be on solids yet? If not, is there any position you would recommend for safe eating (and self-feeding?) in a non-sitting baby.
Thank you very much. Greetings from the Czech republic.
Eliska- this is such a good question! Although I don’t have “my eyes” on your child, what I would typically suggest is starting feeding, as you mentioned. This is an instance outside the norm for sure, and there certainly are exceptions. I would recommend making sure he is seated in a well supported high chair, and in an upright position as much as possible. Keep your doctors informed about how he is progressing and swallowing well. Hope that helps all the way in the Czech republic!
I just started my 6 month old on cereal. I wish I had started with banana or avocado (maybe next week!). Should I let her stick her hands in the bowl and feed herself? It sounds like this is what you are recommending, but I wasn’t sure because I didn’t start with a finger food. I think she would rather do it herself, so I’m going to give it a try. Any tips?
At this age, you will definitely want to feed her, but either give her a little bowl with just a little in it or just put a small dollop on her tray for her to explore. She might dip her fingers in and take it to her mouth! Check out this post too: yourkidstable.com/2012/09/how-to-transition-your-baby-or-toddler.html
By the way, cereal is fine, you can start with bananas any time now:)
Even though I understand it all and see nothing bad about it it isn’t fun for everyone. Sleep deprived and always busy with their child parent may want to avoid extra messiness as they already have plenty to do and their energy after bad nights is limited.
That’s why I understand the wiping or even getting upset when they have to wash their child. Every child and parents situation is different. Sometimes parents are just falling on their face of tiredness and would want to be more relaxed and not as tired but are mostly or totally on their own. That changes the perspective drastically.
Your entry has enlightened me so much! I started feeding my son his first solid food when he was 6 months old and being particular about cleanliness, all prim and proper, I tried my very best to wipe and wipe and wipe his mouth for even a morsel of food.
Boy I am glad I chanced upon your website!! I will let loose and let my 7 months old son HAVE FUN!! They are infant and toddlers for only a short while so yeah I’m gonna do just that 🙂
Yay! Welcome Hilliyah, click the top bar on the screen and sign up for feeding tips- there’s a great printable that you’ll really like, too!
I haven’t had time to read all the comments, so I hope someone hasn’t already asked this (apologies if this is a repeat). My boy is 10 months old. We started with purees and yoghurt from about 6 months old – lots of spoon feeding (and face wiping). For a while, he seemed to accept most food we gave him, and I started giving him small pieces of stuff (cream cheese, soft cheese, scrambled egg, veggies, fruit, etc.) to chew on and try to eat. But I’ve always been a face wiper, the mess really gets to me!!
Anyway, this past week he’s starting to refuse all the food I give him. He won’t touch fruit, which he usually loves, he won’t eat anything, just pushes it out of his mouth and gags a lot of the time. He *seems* to eat at daycare (his food is mostly gone when he gets home, so I hope it’s him eating it), but at home, he’s only drinking his bottles, mostly when he’s tired at bedtime.
Did I ruin him for food with the face wiping and tidying? Can I bring back his enthusiasm for food? He was so good with it a few weeks ago, he’d try anything! Now, he refuses everything, it’s driving me mad! Do I need to get him help? Or shall I just let him have at it and make the mess he needs to to enjoy the food? How do I make sure he gets enough to eat if most of it ends up on the floor or in his hair?
You didn’t ruin him and babies and toddlers go through all sorts of phases for different reasons. Help is never a bad idea. I would definitely let him enjoy the food and make a mess, he needs that and I think that is what he is indicating. I know its hard but it will be worth it, I promise. Right now it doesn’t matter how much he eats because he is still getting milk as his main source of nutrition. Take the next week to apply no pressure, but you can still offer to help. Let him go at it and get back in touch and let me know how it went. I’ll let you know if I think he needs more help!
Since we are focusing more on Liam’s sensory needs rather than a GI issue at hand for his inability to eat anything other than Pediasure, I needed to read this post! My husband is worse than me about letting him get messy – so that is tough! However, we will do it! He needs the sensory and the confidence to feed himself.
Oh my goodness, yes, I know it’s hard, but with what you just told me in the other comment this could make a huge difference! Wishing you the best!
It surely is tough! I told my husband this last night and he admitted that it would be harder for him than me! 🙂
This is such a great post!! And I have read many other posts from you regarding child’s eating habits, must say very informative.
I missed out completely with my first in terms of letting him get messy and self feeding, he is now 3 and barely eats different texture food, never tries any new food. My second is 5 months now, will get straight into messy eating when she starts solids. Any suggestions what can be done with my 3 year old? I have just started to let him play with his food
Thanks so much Bini, it is such a common mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it! I would get him started in sensory bins, this will be very helpful. I have a post on how to set up sensory bins, what they are, and why they help (see the article index in the menu bar, scroll down to sensory). I have another post called Sensory Processing and Picky Eating, I think that will be very helpful, too. If you have any other questions, please let me know!
Our first child was born in September 2012. I happened upon this article as she was learning to feed herself and good thing! I was pretty OCD about messes, but gave it a shot and haven’t looked back since. Our daughter was messy, but all I noticed was she was HAPPY! Of course, she may have inherited some of the cleaning OCD anyway – she learned to clean herself and cleanup after herself without prompting from me, but when eating those most favorite foods, she still throws caution to the wind and makes a mess.
I recently had a friend confess she constantly wipes up after her baby, so I shared my story and this article and inspired her to set her son free, which made for a very happy mama and baby.
Thank you for the inspiration, that motivated me to put my unwarranted fears aside.
Oh Susie, thank you so much for taking the time to write that and to share it with a friend!!! That made my whole day! Many props to you Mama, you are doing great!!!!
I found myself feeling so bad after reading that article! my son is a perfect screamer whenever and wherever and in whichever cases: when changing diapers, screaming, when washing his face, screaming, when playing, screaming, when taking bath, screaming, ……………… so I found it so exhausting if I add mess to my list of daily works with him.. too much. I don’t let him make mess because I am really tired
As a mom of three young boys, one being 10 months, who feeds himself a lot of food, I totally understand. The point of this article is not to guilt you into letting your child be messy, but to inform you of its importance. If it isn’t right for your family that that’s okay. Just be aware of those warning signs for sensitivity to textures, which only sometimes happens when kids don’t have a chance to explore foods.
This is a great article! I’ve been letting my 11 month old get messy in her high chair. Definitely easier to clean up when she’s just in her diaper.
hi, i have a question, my baby and i have tried self feeding for a while now , he is 13 months old now, and its fun and very messy and he loves it!, but my only concern here is that most of his food will end up everywhere else but his mouth, meaning he will eat very minimum compared to when i feed him, so How can or what can i do so he actually starts eating his food himself right now all i do is the self feeding every now and again or let him play with the last bit of his food, once i made sure he had enough to eat. would really appreciate a guide/help
He is really young and it sounds like you are doing an awesome job! He is right on track, as the lack of food actually getting into his mouth is very normal. Keep helping him and showing him. As he improves pull back and allow him to do more.
Tank you Alisha,
he is all of the sudden doing it 😉 mommy is happy now , as a first time mom sometimes i find it hard when i don’t understand what he wants but i am realizing that the changes come so quickly , when i least expected i see a result!!! he is now eating his food and playing with it it a bit less he loves the sensation of the textures and to spread it all over the table 😉 but he does it more once he’s had enough ;), Thank you once again.
I have two messy eaters