Over the past couple of years, even before I had my baby, I started studying Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy. It’s a very long and complicated way to talk about therapy involving the tongue, facial muscles and all of the muscles involved in the process of swallowing. I’ll be honest, it’s not something I ever really thought I would study because the act of swallowing and all of the possible mishaps that go along with it quite frankly gross me out. But it did open my eyes to the developmental process of feeding.
In my 10 years of practice as an Occupational Therapist I have worked with many children who are learning to feed themselves. One of the first things I look for is if a child can bring an object to their mouth. I know many parents want kids to keep things out of their mouths for fear of germs and dirt, but I always get excited when I see a child bring something to their mouth. Speaking from a developmental standpoint, children first explore their world through their mouths. Before they are able to visually perceive an object, they perceive it orally. Bringing an object to their mouth is also the first stage of self feeding.
Ideally, a child will begin to eat food around 6 months of age. This is when we as parents begin to spoon feed our children. We puree veggies, fruit and even meat and begin to form our child’s palate. But what should you do when your child begins to grab that spoon and suddenly the pureed food goes EVERYWHERE? And how do you teach your child to eat on their own? How can they chew if they have no teeth?
I remember when we began introducing food to my little one. The faces she made were priceless! Just watching her figure out what to do with this new substance in her mouth was mesmerizing. How does she know what to do? How does she know to swallow it? Children are remarkable beings. They innately know. It also helps that we as parents sit in front of them chewing the pretend food in our mouths in hopes that our child will mimic our movements. We look ridiculous but our children learn from it.
Suddenly, eating these new foods wasn’t enough for my daughter. She wanted more control over the situation. Around 9 months of age she began grabbing for the spoon and would not let go. Food would spray everywhere until she had that little spoon in her hand…not in mommy’s hand. So I began putting out 2 spoons at every meal. One for me and one for my daughter. Occasionally she would poke at her food with her spoon but she never really fed herself, and honestly I never really let her because I didn’t want to deal with the mess.
One day, I just let go. I put a container of apple sauce in front of her, gave her a spoon and let her go to town. I would say about 2% of that apple sauce actually ended up in her mouth, but it didn’t matter. The pride and accomplishment that I could see she felt was worth the mess she made. Soon enough she was pickup up a piece of chicken that was on her plate, placing it on the spoon, and attempting to bring it to her mouth. Again, approximately 5% actually made it to her mouth, and eventually she would place the spoon down and pick up the food with her fingers to feed herself. But she explored using that utensil at every meal.
I know what most of you are thinking…didn’t she gag herself or choke on her spoon. Yes, she did. Sometimes by accident, mostly on purpose. She was exploring this new phenomenon and testing her limits…ugh, limit testing starts EARLY! My husband and I would often disagree about giving her the spoon. He believed she was gagging because she didn’t know how far to place the spoon in her mouth. But I saw that little smirk on her face when she did it…she was being mischievous and looking for that response from daddy. As soon as we ignored it, she stopped.
It’s a miraculous thing to watch a child develop new skills. Some children need a little more help than others, but most of the time, if you just present them with the tools, they will figure out a way to make it work.