The Basic Steps to Feeding Infants & Toddlers

There are things that I know due to my training I take for granted. Things lead me to have in-depth discussions with my boy’s pediatrician. There is a reason why the kids of my Physical Therapist friend can ride their bikes without training wheels at 3 years old (not my kids) and a reason why my own kids of a Speech/Feeding Therapist are perfect speakers and wonderfully adventurous eaters. Therapists who specialize in pediatrics have a leg up when it comes to parenting in terms of their specialization. In our case, it is knowing the Basic Steps to Feeding Infants & Toddlers.

Without my training, feeding my babies would have felt like being in left field.

This realization happens through mere observations of parents who are struggling when it comes to basics such as introducing solids, child nutrition, developmental food play (DFP), developmental oral motor skills, and the relationship with food.

If you are struggling with feeding your baby, you are not alone and may find yourselves doing the following:

  1. Feeling you’re not getting enough nutrition into your new feeder so you may be over spoon feeding your baby a puree or soft mechanical food you feel is nutritional for your child.
  2. Keeping the highchair, child and tray clean (usually by spoon feeding and wiping) before they are finished.
  3. Giving your baby something different from what you’re eating and at different times.
  4. Mistaking Developmental Food Play (DFP) as negative behaviors and complaining when they throw food on the floor and/or make a mess.
  5. Introducing solids too late 12-15 months.

The FIRST misconception

I would like to provide some resources on both nutrition and PORTION size individualized for each little one. Parents simply need to constantly remind themselves that little ones have little bellies and the rule of thumb for portion size is the size of their teeny tiny fists. Take a good look because that is literally 1 chicken nugget for some two-year-olds. I know my boys could eat more at that age especially during a growth spurt but during the times that they only ate their expected portion size, I knew not to worry.  I’ve included a link to Dr.Berry Brazelton on the subject of examining our expectations and dealing with our anxieties when it comes to feeding our babies. 

The other resource falls into the public announcement category. The Basics of Nutrition and anyone who is thinking of buying baby food would greatly benefit from the following course available for FREE online: Introduction to Food and Health via Stanford University. You can access this course as well as Child Nutrition and Cooking via coursera.com I highly recommend these courses presented by Maya Adams M.D., check out her talk as a quick introduction. She has invaluable insight and knowledge on nutrition and cooking for your family. She also enlightens us with how simple it is.

The SECOND that leads to the THIRD misconception

The second and third traps parents may fall into is led by the high chair. High chairs can be a great thing for getting really messy and positioning, depending on the chair and how it is used. If you’re not letting your baby get messy in a high chair then you’re missing the perks of having a high chair.  Check out this article regarding messiness and avenues to learning.  In addition to learning, developmental food play skills are critical in learning how to eat, such as crawling is to walking and talking. In other words if you’re going to invest in a high chair, use it for all the opportunities that come tagging along with allowing your child to get messy. Proper positioning can be achieved by boosters or hook-on seats once the baby can sit upright independently. This enables the baby to be directly at the table, getting all the sensory information from the food they need to advance to eating it. The BIGGEST roadblock posed by the high chair is it separates the baby from the table where everyone is eating, creating a psychological dichotomy of feeding and halting their budding, impressionable relationship with food. In a high chair, the baby learns they are not an equal when it comes to eating with their parents. This often leads to eating different foods and at different times. Easy for a brief moment of time and detrimental as they quickly advance in other areas BUT feeding.

The FOURTH misconception

Developmental Food Play (DFP) is a series of feeding, fine motor, and self-help milestones that every baby exhibits. Here is a quick reference for the stages and why they are important.

Stage 1 (6-18 months) Smooshing, smearing, spitting and wearing. Babies are exhibiting these developmental food play skills to learn and accept new textures first with their hands and bodies, and then in their mouths. See how that works! Spitting is learning how to manipulate and manage the foods safely in their mouths, it’s a defense mechanism and you want to see it. Oral manipulation and management of food takes both time and practice and is not easily achieved without being messy.

Stage 2 (12-20 months) Throwing, crumbling, tearing, wearing. Babies are learning and achieving fine motor skills such as pincer grasp, pointing, holding, removing and bringing hands to midline(middle of the body). Does any of this sound neat and tidy?

Stage 3 (2-3 years) Pouring. A simple activity but a multitude of mad developmental skills. Here is why. Children are doing more than making a mess in the moment: they are forever changing their attentional biases and learning new concepts associated with language and learning.

Stage 4 (3-4 years) Cutting and manipulating. At this point your “baby” needs to do more than just eat in order to be an active participant in feeding themselves. This is where parents need to keep up with maintaining their child’s relationship with food. Allowing your child to cut (supervised) and manipulate via recipes and experiments gives them the confidence and skills to eat a variety of foods.

The FIFTH misconception

Most parents are shaking in their boots when you tell them to introduce solids at 8 months. Even as a well-trained oral motor expert, I found this book to be very helpful and reassuring, Baby Led Weaning by Gill Rapley. My boys were introduced to solids once they were sitting upright independently at around 7 months. They were still nursed regularly and the introduction to solids was closely monitored with big pieces of whatever they were showing interest in. I knew that babies do not develop the ability to transfer food back for a swallow until around 8 months, so basically, everything was pushed straight out of their mouth by their tongue. Plus, they were still suckling everything. I was surprised when one of my boys actually decided to take a bite out of a piece of naan pita bread one day. No teeth, just gums and they worked. Thankfully, he eventually pushed it forward but he definitely learned some new oral motor patterns from the piece he bit off and the crumbs he had achieved to keep in his mouth.

If you’re still unsure about introducing solids at this age then you can give them a chewy tube that will strengthen their jaw, desensitize their gag reflex and coordinate their tongue muscles (all things a big raw carrot can do) but if you want/need nonfood or want something in addition; you can find them through this link, Ark’s baby grabber.

Introducing solids at an early age is just for exploration and fun. Babies get to advance their oral motor development and adapt to new textures at the same time without the expectation to eat it. Even with my expertise, I still watched them like a hawk just waiting for them to choke. I kept reminding myself that coughing and gagging are defense mechanisms and not choking. It was not often that they coughed or gagged but the one time my one boy did start coughing on something, I panicked and was going in for the finger swipe. Lucky for me and especially for him I was not quick enough and he was able to work it out for himself, avoiding a negative feeding experience and gaining more confidence in his skills. PHEW!

Unfortunately, most parents don’t introduce solids until it’s far too late and the expectation for them to eat is looming.  The problem is the babies are not developing the oral motor patterns to confidently handle solids and/or varied textures. Add the expectation to eat it, rather than have fun and explore and learn than you’re going to run into some resistance. Sitting in a high chair away from the table where the good stuff is and what else can you expect a 12-15-month-old to do but throw it on the floor. Frustrating for the parents and the new feeder.  Follow the advice and resources shared and you can avoid the frustrations, endure the messiness and you will reap the rewards of seeing your child enjoy and accept a variety of healthy, nutritional food for a lifetime.