Babies typically begin to mouth or chew on teethers, toys, and their hands between 4-6 months. But that doesn’t mean your baby is ready to chew on a piece of steak just yet.
When babies first start chewing, the movement you see is a basic up and down jaw movement, sometimes called munching, that will eventually progress into a mature chewing pattern, called rotary chewing. Throughout this process, babies are also developing side-to-side tongue movements, called tongue lateralization. Tongue lateralization helps your baby push food over to the area where the molars will eventually come in, where the heavy work of chewing happens. As your baby chews the food multiple times, it forms into a little ball or “bolus” of food, which is then transferred to the back of the mouth for swallowing.
Some babies progress along this developmental process of learning to chew and swallow without much assistance, while other babies need a little more help in this area. Parents need to remember that eating is the most complex physical task that children do.
In fact, it takes a typically developing child until about 2 years of age to learn to eat a wide variety of foods. The following tips can help build the foundational skills for chewing:
1. Offer baby teething toys and encourage the baby to move them over to the biting surfaces. This helps with the up and down jaw movements and lateral movements of the tongue needed for chewing. Some favorite teething toys include the Baby Banana Toothbrush, or textured grabber.
2. Get in a good habit of gently brushing your baby’s gums and first teeth early on. Babies can chew on an infant toothbrush.
3. Don’t be afraid to use purees to teach the concept of swallowing first. Purees can be very helpful for teaching how to swallow, as they help intrinsic tongue muscles develop, preparing your baby to chew and swallow more efficiently. It’s also less common to gag or choke on purees, which may help some babies feel more comfortable when starting the feeding process. With purees, you can even place the spoon to the sides of the mouth as you would with a teether or soft piece of food.
4. Use appropriate finger foods, such as crackers or biscuits that melt easily, soft cooked veggies cut into strips or fruits that squish nicely, such as avocado or banana. Cutting foods into thin stick or strip shapes can help with placing foods on the sides for chewing.
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