Weaning as learning – why food before one is NOT just for fun
With thanks to The Feeding Trust (With input from; Speech and Language Therapy, Dietetics, Occupational Therapy and Psychology)
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that eating is easy – especially as adults who, on the whole, are very well practiced and enjoy the eating experience. What’s helpful to remember about starting solids is exactly how much learning is involved, and the range of different factors that will affect and/or be affected by the journey. To highlight these, we’ve summarised how babies and toddlers experience learning with food!
Oro-motor skills for eating
Babies are used to swallowing thin liquids, such as breast or formula milk. They put lots of toys, objects and their hands in their mouths to explore how they feel. Then they start learning how to chew; by swallowing thicker liquids and tiny lumps, taking food off a spoon and moving it across their mouths with their tongue, chomping down with their jaw and biting pieces of food off what they might be holding. With so many steps –this skill takes time and practice.
During this time babies and toddlers can understand more than they can say so they need to hear lots of positive words when learning to eat, describing what they are doing with the food, alongside the names for all the foods. When a little older, toddlers often love to practise using all their different words and short phrases too.
Babies and toddlers are constantly taking in information from their environment through their senses (touch, vision, hearing, taste, smell, movement, body awareness). They use this information to learn more about their environment which then aids with their learning and development. Ensuring mealtimes and the foods offered are full of different colours, shapes, smells, textures and tastes will widen their repertoire and expand the sensory experience. Experiment with presenting food in different ways will increase variety and interest. Babies and toddlers will also start to learn about internal sensory experiences such as hunger and thirst being able to regulate their own appetites.
Fine motor and self-help skills
Babies and toddlers develop new ways of using their hands and also learn that they can feed themselves. They develop hand eye coordination and different grasp patterns to bring foods to their mouths with their hands or with a utensil. They observe and learn from adults that they need to scoop or stab foods to load a spoon or fork.
Mealtimes require a suitable level of motor control and core strength. A child needs to feel stable and secure from their head to their toes whilst sitting. They need to be sat in a position which promotes head, trunk and pelvic alignment, with their feet supported and at a correct height to a tray or table. Good positioning helps to promote effective hand skills, safe swallowing and concentration skills when eating.
Medical and nutritional factors
Whilst early on in weaning breast or formula milk will remain a baby’s main source of nutrition, as weaning progresses it’s important to ensure foods are offering key nutrients such as iron. Babies and toddlers also need to have enough energy to be alert and engaged in eating, especially during weaning. If you child has any medical or nutritional needs such as food allergy or difficulty gaining weight, a health professional such as a Dietitian can help support your child’s nutritional needs on their weaning journey.
Family routines and communication style
Routines give babies and toddlers a sense of security and stability. Routines make their environments more predictable, helping babies and toddlers to gain an understanding of new experiences and learn what they are expected to do. Using the same, simple words at mealtimes will help babies and toddlers understand the new routines more quickly and make it easier for them to learn.
Sleeping and toileting routines
Babies and toddlers need to be in a predictable routine of sleep and awake periods when looking to try new foods. Babies work best when they are alert and well rested. Planning mealtimes after a nap may be beneficial to ensure they have the energy to engage in the experience and enjoy exploring all of the new textures and tastes. If a baby or toddler is suffering from constipation or difficulties opening their bowels this should be explored with a medical professional as this may impact on how they feel around food and mealtimes.
Social and emotional
Research shows that eating together increases social bonding and feelings of wellbeing. Shared mealtimes are a great way for babies and toddlers to learn with food to develop social skills, such as listening and taking turns. They do this by watching the behaviours modelled by parents and older siblings.
The Feeding Trust is a collective of expert professionals who have come together to create an award-winning feeding therapy service. They are a well-rounded team of occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, dieticians and clinical psychologists who offer full assessments and the right treatments, all in one place, for children and young people who have significant feeding difficulties.
Facebook: The Feeding Trust
Disclaimer: The views and advice given in this article are those of the guest writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Weaning Week or any other organisations represented on this platform