When do children start learning to chew? During the process of weaning (around 6-7 months), when they start to eat foods other than milk. There is a critical window of opportunity to introduce textured foods (lumpy foods) between 7-9 months. Delaying this introduction may lead to difficulties with adult foods or picky eating during the toddler years. Developing chewing skills allows children to manage different textures and expand their food repertoire. Chewing is typically mastered around 18-24 months when they can handle adult foods.
How do chewing skills develop?
At around 4-6 months babies may start mouthing and munching on their fingers, hands, toys, and teethers. The up and down jaw movements (munching) eventually mature into a mature adult rotational chewing pattern. Babies also develop side to side tongue movements to move food around their mouth, rather than only moving their tongue forward and backwards.
Tips to support chewing development
Tip 1: Encourage and support your child’s oral exploration! Allow them to put fingers, safe toys and objects in the mouth and explore them with their jaw, lips, and tongue. This is the first step for them to tolerate textures. Later on, provide opportunities for children to bring pieces of soft food to their mouths. At the start they may lick, suck, mash or push it out, but it is only with this exploration that they may learn to bite and chew later on.
Tip 2: Introduce a variety of textures early – exposure over time is key. The only way babies will learn to chew well is by actually chewing food, to strengthen their jaw, lip and tongue muscles. Here is how:
“My baby has no teeth yet, so he cannot chew!” This is a myth. Babies do not need to have teeth to learn to chew. The first steps of chewing require only tongue, jaw and cheek movements. Teeth are needed only later on to break down more fibrous foods.
Tip 3: Stay calm if your child gags. Gagging is a normal part of the learning process and is not the same as choking. It often means that your child tried to swallow a piece of food without chewing it sufficiently to break it down. With gagging, there is noise and sound and the child’s face turns red. With choking, there is often silence and the child starts to turn blue.
Try your best to remain calm and use a steady voice, as children can sense adults’ fear and may become scared to try foods in the future. Children can usually recover from a gag without any adult intervention. Provide encouragement, check the piece of food that led to the gag, and make modifications as needed (e.g. make it smaller, smash it a little bit more)
Tip 4: Model chewing for your child! Eat together with them, and model the chewing movements. They learn best by watching you. Most importantly, offer lots of praise and encouragement and have fun!
If your child is facing difficulties with chewing or textured foods, trust your parental intuition and seek help early! Our therapists at Amazing Speech Therapy will be able to provide more specific strategies and advice tailored to your child and family.