How Can I Help My Child Learn to Chew?

The ideal way to develop a varied diet is to expose children to a variety of textures.  To do this, the child needs to have a safe way of chewing and swallowing food.  Many children transition from bottle/breast to purees to table foods given time and practice. As a child ages, the type of chewing that they’re able to physically manage changes which obviously means that the types of foods that also evolve and start to vary.

This list of the developmental stages of chewing is as follows:

  • • 6 months: sucking breast milk/formula and begins to suck smooth purees from a spoon.
  • • 7-8 months: uses a munching pattern when they eat and continues to explore a variety of smooth purees.
  • • 9 months: use more of a vertical chewing pattern and mashes foods with their tongue.  Soft-cooked veggies, soft fruits, soft cheese cubes and baby crackers are used to help practice the skills of chewing.
  • • 1 year old: rotary chewing (an exaggerated version of this is a cow chewing its cud) is developing and more foods can be explored.
  • • 2-3 years old: skilled at rotary chewing and the tongue helps to hold the food on the sides of the mouth/molars.
  • • By 4 years old, all the necessary skills for chewing are likely established.

So, what do you do if your child is not making these progressions, or gets stuck along the way?  A first step is to talk to your pediatrician about scheduling an evaluation with an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist skilled in oral motor and feeding development.  This will help you understand the WHY behind your child’s skill development.  Also, the therapist can recommend therapy and/or give you strategies and activities to practice at home.

Practice at home starts with exposure.  Giving your child plenty of (safe) opportunities to explore the textures of food, grading the amount of force needed to chew a food and managing swallowing liquid while continuing to chew foods such as a quartered grape. Here is a list of activities to try at home with your child seated in a high-chair or safely at the dining table:

  • • When giving purees, place the spoon at the side of the mouth on the gum ridge/molars and ‘dump’.  This placement helps to initiate the chewing pattern needed for more challenging foods in the future.
  • • Practice chewing with Chewy Tubes.
  • • Play a game of tug o’ war using a washcloth held between the side teeth/molars of your child and give a few firm, gentle tugs.
  • • Practice with small cubed shaped pieces of hard, meltable foods such as yogurt bites or corn puffs.

Watching your child grow and learn new things and try new foods is exciting. I remember getting the okay from the pediatrician to move to solids and the mix of joy and trepidation – what should we try first? Am I going to ruin her for life if she eats a fruit before a vegetable? As with all things related to parenting, it can be fun one day and fraught the next, but we are here to help if you run into any challenges or simply have a question about feeding and eating!

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