As a mom of two kids under the age of five, I know first-hand how mess making during mealtime can really drive a type-A mama like myself to the brink of insanity. (Over and over again, every day.) But as a pediatric occupational therapist, who specializes in sensory related feeding issues and picky eating, I also know that the benefits of letting my kids get messy when they eat, far outweigh the downfalls of messy mealtimes.
I’ve seen firsthand how many type-A moms like myself, delay letting their little ones self-feed during the food-introduction period, to avoid the mess. The problem with delaying self-feeding and not allowing babies to explore foods with their hands is that it can, in some instances, lead to an interference with normal feeding patterns and can contribute to more selective eating patterns in the long run.
There are many ways that delayed self-feeding can contribute to the development of normal feeding and interfere with the development of oral motor skills (the skills that help the mouth, tongue, lips and cheeks work in a coordinated way to mash up and swallow food).
Babies Learn through Touch
It might be helpful to first take a look at how babies learn about the world around them within the first year of life. Babies are naturally driven by their tactile sense and explore the world around them with their sense of touch. They touch, feel and explore objects within their reach by bringing items that they’ve discovered to their mouths. This helps them to understand more about their environment.
The fingertips and the lips and tongue just so happen to house more sensory receptors (cells that receive tactile or touch information to the brain to help us to understand what it is and what it feels like) than any other region in the entire human body.
Babies learn about accepting new textures in this very specific order of touch: first their hands, then their mouth (we call this proximal to distal sensory acceptance in the therapy world.) That is just the progression of tactile sensory exploration, the way that babies learn about the world around them. Babies (and toddlers too) need to be allowed the opportunity to touch, feel and smell their foods in order to determine if they are willing to try it with their mouths.
I think if we understand that concept, we can appreciate why babies are constantly chewing on and mouthing everything they can possibly get their hands on. I think we will also understand, then, why it is important to let babies explore different food textures with their hands and mouths.
Babies Naturally Crave Autonomy
Another important characteristic of babies is that they are naturally driven by a need for autonomy and independence (meaning they want to figure out how things work on their own). This can describe why sometimes a toddlers very first words are often “no,” “myself” or “me” or “mine.” Sure, some babies are more passive than others, but for the most part, kids want to do things for themselves. This is especially important during the critical food introduction period, in my eyes.
It is important to let babies explore foods on their own terms, when they are ready and to not encroach on this innate drive for feeding autonomy. This matters because feeding autonomy can set a framework for both 1) developing a healthy relationship with food and b) helping kids tune into their own internal nutritional cues.
The moral of the story here, is that the more that we let our children take the lead around the dinner table, the more comfortable they will feel with food and mealtime.
Issues With Spoon Feeding
While I have no problem with a feeding purees for a short period of time (1-2 weeks at the most), or helping babies spoon feed with more difficult food items (like soup, for example), I do think that long term spoon feeding of puree’s can encroach on a babies natural drive to explore and learn through their sense of touch and it also takes away a babies innate drive for autonomy.
Often parents choose to spoon feed purees for longer period of time because they fear choking. The irony in this is that the longer a baby or child goes without learning the concepts of how foods feel and how to go about manipulating, biting, chewing and then swallowing these foods; the more likelihood they will have an actual problem with an over-reactive gag, poor tolerance to different textures and choking. This is because the more times the gag reflex (a protective mechanism that inhibits aspiration of food being lodged in the airway) is elicited, the quicker the body self-teaches more efficient movement patterns within the mouth.
An example of a more efficient oral motor pattern would be learning how to swipe food from the airway with the tongue and move it into the molar region.
Furthermore, many children who throw up often during mealtime (with no underlying medical causation) have an over-reactive gag-reflex, which has been set in motion due to a lack of experiences with real foods in the first few years of life.
Getting Messy Helps to Desensitize the Tactile System
Over-protecting and over-sanitizing has taught children that being messy is not okay. Because many children in this generation have had limited exposure to the natural elements of nature (like sand, mud, etc), they are generally lacking in real life experiences with different textures.
A child who lacks basic experiences with textures on their hands and has never been exposed to messy textures in nature can become over-sensitive to tactile information (these children will cry or scream if they get their hands or face messy or will refuse to walk in the sand or grass.) Sensory-related diagnosis’ are on the rise more than ever before. We need to teach our children (and retrain ourselves as mothers, too) that being messy is okay and a very crucial part of play and child development.
Babies and kids need to be allowed to get messy and feel their foods with their hands because this important part of sensory play promotes a tolerance to a wider variety of textures. The more textures they are allowed to explore with their hands (and feet too), the more they can put a name to different textures like “mushy” “crunchy” “lumpy”, etc. The more we broaden their understanding of different textures, the more likely they will allow these textures into their mouths in the form of new foods.
Self-feeding Promotes Age Appropriate Hand-eye Coordination + Fine Motor Skills
The last but certainly not least important reason that getting messy benefits babies during feeding is that it enhances the development of both hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. These hand skills impact a child’s performance in many life-related skills and school. A few examples of life skills that depend on refined hand-eye coordination are things like dressing, handwriting, shoe tying, utensil use and cutting. The building blocks for hand-eye coordination begin in the hand to mouth exploration phase, which is typical from 6-18 months of age.