One of the big questions that comes up as a child becomes more and more driven to eat orally is “How do I get their skills to catch up?” It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing what your child is doing with food compared to their siblings and peers. Keeping in mind their “eating age” (how long they have been eating orally) definitely helps put things into perspective, but we all can’t help but wonder if there is anything that can be done to scoot those skills along.
While some kids will need the help of a local feeding therapist to more intensively work on the muscles for biting and chewing, there are some things that we can do to help set our kids up to be successful, as well as help progress their skills for biting and chewing naturally.
Movement to more “big kid” patterns of chewing rely on changes in how the mouth works. Our tongue goes from the primitive movement of forward and back to needing to move side to side. This lets us get food to our molars for chewing, move it back to swallow, or clean out bits that get stuck. We train this movement by stimulating the sides of our mouth through different foods and toys (it also helps move back the gag reflex, which starts very far forward, so don’t panic if your child gags themselves now and again).
We can encourage this exploration by looking at how we are presenting foods. We are going to set up our kiddos to do all the work as they feel comfortable with new foods. Because we want them to chew on their molars, we want to make it easy for them in the beginning to get the food there (which in turn helps train the tongue to move there).
Make sure that the fork they are using is not too big. Many “baby” forks have nearly the same sized tines with a shorter handle. This is too big. Aim instead for one the has the head of the fork being about a 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch in size. Cocktail forks are perfect for this. Any foods that are larger than the fork, cut into 1/4 inch wide strips (and leave them long). You can also provide some bite sized pieces allowing your child to move between the two. If needed, you can load the fork and set it down, when your child is ready to explore it, they can.
Presenting food in this manner encourages kids to place food onto their molars. Placing food on your molars sends your tongue to the side to see what the new input is over there. It is reflexive for your tongue to “check out” input on the sides of the mouth. Think about when you have a popcorn kernel stuck on your gum line, or when the dentist tells you to keep your tongue away from what they are doing. It’s hard to keep it out of the way. Your tongue is programmed to go check out what is going on in the mouth.
Another great way to encourage exploration of the mouth is providing foods in these same skinny strips that can be sucked and chomped on, without pieces breaking off (this will also depend on how strong your child’s bite is). It is important to note with these types of foods to provide supervision and encourage spitting out the piece if they do break a piece off (or stay calm and help them get it out of their mouth, we don’t want them to think this is a time to panic) as they are likely above the child’s feeding level at the moment and we do not want to create an opportunity for choking. Some ideas for foods like this are: raw carrots, beef jerky, candy cane sticks, pretzel rods, dried fruit strips, semi-stale licorice (leave the bag open overnight), biscotti or other hard cookies. This type of input gives flavor and encouragement to move the tongue, without providing any pieces that actually have to be managed.
Also, a quick note on spitting. I often encourage children that are new to eating orally to learn how to spit out foods. It is very scary to put something new in your mouth if you know you are not going to be able to get it out if you can’t chew it, don’t like the flavor or texture, etc. Being able to get a food out of your mouth makes you much more willing to explore. When I teach this, I provide a model: Put something in, open my mouth, tip my head forward and stick out my tongue so the food falls out. Practicing with a known preferred food is great. As children get older and better at this, you can show them how to do this into a napkin for the sake of manners and social appropriateness for when they are at school or you’re out in public.
Amanda Kyle, MA, CCC-SLP