Weaning is a long, hard, and exciting journey for everyone, but is possibly truest for families working to wean their toddlers: children gaining newfound independence in all ways, but especially with food. This independence likely comes with behaviors such as refusal, pickiness, short attention spans at the table, tantrums for no apparent reason, and possible plate throwing. They may like a specific food one week and claim to hate it the next week. And as frustrating as this news might be, it’s important to remember that all of these are expected behaviors: they are toddlers, “terribly two”, testing boundaries, and as they wean, food is now something they can exert control over.
So often, caregivers ask us about what they might expect from their weaning toddler, and to answer this, we are best served by mirroring the eating progression of typically eating infants.
By the time a typical eating toddler is about 2 years old, we expect them to safely and efficiently manage all textures, tastes, and complexities of foods. In other words, they are eating meals that are similar to what their adult counterparts are. Most of these toddlers began eating at around 6 months old, starting with purees off a spoon, tastes of mom and dad’s food, teething biscuits, etc. These tastes bring new flavors and help to build foundational skills for solid foods, but of course, there is no pressure for infants to take high volumes of purees because they continue to receive most of their nutrition from formula or breast milk.
Weaning toddlers follow a similar pattern when learning to eat more than breast milk or formula. So, in the beginning stages of a wean, for example, we expect volume to be low, new flavors to be accepted or rejected, and interests to change and expand around food. Similar to an infant, our weaning toddlers are getting the majority of their nutrition from a formula or a blended diet, so we do not expect solid food volumes to be large in the beginning.
Following this learning pattern, many typically eating infants begin to branch off purees around 8-12 months and start to try pieces of soft, fork mashable table foods, and thicker purees such as small pieces of fruit, yogurt, guacamole, mashed banana, etc. Gagging is typical when new sizes and textures are added, but this becomes desensitized as the infant gains more experience with foods. We expect similar behaviors for our weaning toddlers as they begin to explore new textures. Many may gag on new foods, and this physiological response will typically go away with more eating practice.
Between 12 and 24 months typical eating children continue to explore different foods in an adult schedule (three meals and 2-3 snacks) and continue to build the oral motor skills to manage almost all foods. Food becomes primary at this age and a child typically switches from formula or breast milk as their main source of nutrition to a balanced diet of solid food, water, and milk or milk alternatives. And, by 2 to 2.5 years old, a typical eating toddler has had about 18 months to 2 years of experience with food and drinks, every day, multiple times a day.
We can expect this same progression in oral motor development for our weaning toddlers. If a toddler begins weaning at 18 months, for example, we expect their “eating age” and oral motor skills to be closer to a 6-12 month old. Thus, we don’t expect them to wean to foods their peers are eating; rather, we expect them to wean to purees and soft table foods because this is the stage where their skills are most efficient. And as caregivers, we can be at peace, knowing that their oral motor skills will continue to develop as they learn to eat – by eating.
Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is this: Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither are oral motor skills. In fact, we expect the same amount of time (18 months to 2 years) for oral motor skills to develop to eating all foods for weaning toddlers as we do for infants.
So if you’re working through a wean with your toddler, and finding yourself concerned or curious about how eating skills progress, take heart: while it might take time, happy, trusting and independent eating is within your grasp!
Kathryn Stewart, MS, CF-SLP, Feeding Therapist