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Why Messy Eating Is Important For Your Baby's Development

THIS is how babies should eat! Alright I get it, they’re covered in food, it’s in their hair, ruining their clothes, all over the floor, and causing a big mess you will have to clean up. BUT messy play and messy eating are so important for a baby’s feeding skills! Plus, look at that cute smile!

Messy play and self feeding is a critical learning experience for your baby. Messy eating:

  • Provides important sensory experiences: It is a form of sensory play, and an opportunity for your baby’s brain to receive feedback about the foods properties including texture, temperature, color, quantity, and the difference between solid and non-solid foods. Sensory play also promotes exploration, and helps build a positive environment around food. The tactile stimulation your baby gets from playing in the messy textures provides tons of meaningful information to the brain that your child will process and create more sophisticated responses to. Babies and toddlers naturally seek these types of experiences out of curiosity, exploration, and the need for sensory input. For babies, sensory play with food is one of the safest options, since we can't always trust them with sand or finger paints without them eating it!

  • Prevents tactile defensiveness: Tactile defensiveness is the reaction that occurs when someone is very sensitive to touch. When kids are exposed to different textures, they are less likely to become sensitive to new or different textures over time. If you keep your baby very clean during meals, often wiping their hands and face between bites, they may reach a point when getting messy feels uncomfortable because it becomes a foreign sensation to them. This isn't to say that tactile defensiveness is taught, but tactile exploration can definitely help improve a child's tolerance to various textures and decrease the likelihood of developing an aversion to being messy.

  • Helps your child be more accepting to new foods: Playing with food teaches children about the foods sensory properties. Once a child is more familiar and comfortable with the foods, they are more willing to try it. The messy play helps them to overcome the fear of new textures/flavors, resulting in eating a more diverse diet.

  • Promotes self feeding skills! How will your baby learn to self feed if they never get a chance to practice?! Letting them get their hands covered in yogurt and then bring the yogurt to their mouth is initially what teaches them that they can in fact feed themselves! Later, letting them flip that spoon all around as they try to figure out how to bring it to their mouth without dropping the applesauce is teaching them the motor planning, body awareness, and coordination skills that they need to be successful with self feeding. Also, picking up food with their hands encourages fine motor skills such as reaching, grasping, pincer grasp, and more.

  • Helps keep the mealtime positive and fun! Instead of fighting with your baby to clean their face every few bites or let go of the spoon so that you can feed them, let them play! Creating a positive mealtime experience from the beginning is helpful to your child and their future feeding success.

Some tips and tricks to improve your child's skills, and decrease the mess (and your stress!):

  • Naked baby! Strip them down to their diaper during the entire mealtime. This means no laundry!

  • At the end of the feeding experience, remove your child from the high chair, and clean them up (this is to avoid linking the negative connotation of the cleaning process to the high chair, keeping the feeding experience positive for your child), or better yet, go right to bathtime!

  • Feed on easy to clean surfaces, or better yet lay a towel underneath the high chair

  • If your child is really struggling with getting the food in their mouth and you must assist with the spoon feeding, use one for yourself, and give your child their own spoon to continue practicing

  • Don't wipe down/clean your child or the feeding tray throughout the feeding process, wait until the end. This includes doing the chin spoon swipe we so often do when feeding babies! (Can you imagine how annoying and uncomfortable that would be?!). If your child gets food in their eyes, you can help wipe that off, but otherwise if it isn't interfering, allow your child to get as messy as possible!

  • Have a baby who plays in the food, but doesn't bring it to their mouth? Model for them, and assist them in lifting their hand to their mouth

All of this is not to say that every single mealtime should look this way. I get it, there's not always time for cleaning up a big mess! But aim to make as many mealtimes as possible a positive developmental experience, which means, GETTING MESSY!

Do you have a child who seems overly fearful of trying new foods, touching new foods, etc.? Do they gag at the sight, smell, or touch of new foods, or simply refuse to try? Schedule a free screening with me so we can see if a feeding therapy evaluation is necessary!

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