Spoon feed that is!
And even though I don’t advocate starting with a spoon when initially beginning the journey into pureed foods; we do get there.
My very first step in feeding my sweet son is always the same. I start by placing several spoonfuls of puree directly on to the tray in front of him. Henry has already gotten the hang of touching and tasting his food with his hands independently, but before he reached this stage — I helped him by modeling and by assisting him, hand-over-hand, to play with his food (also called “tray work” in our house).
During this child-directed exploration of food, he is essentially given permission to smell (ie. is it sweet, sour?), to touch the texture (i.e. Does the food feels, thick, thin, wet, dry, sticky?) and learn about the temperature (i.e. is it hot, is it cold, is it warm?). Once Henry has assessed all of this sensory information, he then takes his tiny hand up to his mouth and takes a taste. This is followed by an immediate, positive praise storm that erupts from his excited mom!
YAY! Nom, nom, nom! So PROUD of you, my sweet baby! Good Tasting!
Our initial introduction was a slow, gradual approach with only tray work for the first two weeks. When Henry demonstrated that he felt comfortable and was having fun with independent, self-directed tasting, I then put some puree onto a spoon and I handed it to him. Instead of sticking it into his mouth myself, I used self-restraint and initially handed over the control of the spoon to my sweet babe.
It’s easier to do this when you think about feeding from another perspective. If you were going to try a new food as an adult…how would you feel if, first, you were required to be strapped into a chair and instructed to open your mouth to be spoon fed an unknown food substance into your mouth? You would not be able to touch the food, smell the food, know the consistency or the temperature — you just would have to “open up & say ahhhh!” Yikes! As adults, we would never stand for that…most of us don’t even love being fed cakes at weddings. Our natural instinct is to protect our airway and we do that when we inspect our foods – see, hold, touch and smell our foods. This instinct is there from the very start, so we need to be considerate to our babies.
So is my 6 month old and expert at spoon feeding himself?
Not just yet! I know it is important to let him explore, but he still needs my safe guarding and watchful eyes to make sure the spoon does not reach too far into his oral cavity to trigger his gag reflex. I allow a little independence, but never more than a 1/2 teaspoon amount of puree at a time and I never take my eyes off of him, so that I am able to intercept as needed.
All babies have many fine and gross motor advances to make before they will reach the stage of true self feeding. Right now my Henry is doing a great job grabbing the spoon, pulling it to his lips, mouthing it and sucking the puree off.
When the opportunity arrives and he has taken his spoon out of his mouth, I offer a taste off of a second spoon (that I hold), but more often than not…I just reload his. It’s good oral motor exercise for all the motor advances his body is striving to make in the next few months.
By age five to six months, babies that initially sucked on food begin to munch up and down. This is a basic, immature, vertical up and down, chewing pattern that will grow into a full rotary chew later on. For a child to graduate from simply tasting foods to actually eating foods from a spoon, they need to:
- Bring their head forward
- Accept the spoon into their oral cavity
- Close their lips around the spoon
- Remove food from the spoon using upper and lower lips
- Begin to lateralize their tongue to push the puree to those sweet little gums for munching (early chew pattern that I mentioned above)
- Use their tongue to form a bolus or small mass of chewed food (at this stage, bolus means gathered and/or munched food, since it is already pureed for them)
- Use their tongues to push the bolus to the back of their mouths to initiate the swallow
Phew! And all this needs to happen efficiently and within seconds. This is really hard work for our little ones. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! And please take notice that the steps above do not include their processing of the sensory elements of food that I discussed last Friday, here.
Today’s research continues to suggest a “critical or sensitive period” around months 5-6 when the central nervous system has matured to a point that is ideal for introducing purees and textures foods. This is wonderful information, but often this information sends us out of the flood gates at full speed, when instead, we should just be taking a casual stroll to let our babies and ourselves slowly begin. Be watchful for cues of readiness during this “critical time” and when they arrive, start with a laid back, slow, gradual approach. When we don’t slow down and let our babies lead, especially at the beginnings of mealtimes, then we fail to truly lead our babies to having a positive, life-long journey with food.
So when you decide to introduce a spoon, continue beginning your mealtimes with sensory exploration or “tray work” and then let your baby have their own spoon. When you offer food on a spoon take careful effort to present it at the sides of their mouths near the gum line and not directly in the center of their mouths. This reduces your babies workload and encourages tongue strengthening. Most important of all, remember, they are learning every mealtime!
Go slow – Smile and cheer for your baby!