How to Teach a Child to Chew Food
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It is very scary for a parent when they notice that their kid is swallowing their food whole. In South Florida, occupational therapists are well trained to assist in this area. We often pair with speech therapists, so that they can assess the safety of the swallowing.
This question was asked on social media this week, and I thought it would be best addressed by a blog post.
If your child is having difficulty with chewing or swallowing food, I recommend that you complete an evaluation with the appropriate healthcare professional to ensure their safety.
It is first important to realize that learning to chew is actually a developmental sequence. This sequence allows children to safely progress through eating different types of food and textures.
Around 6-9 months (when a baby is first starting to be fed), a child starts by using an up and down munching pattern. Because may babies don’t yet have teeth, they are likely “gumming” the food. They then begin to develop the side to side movement, before acquiring a more diagonal/rotary pattern.
Although chewing may seem like a simple task, there are many underlying areas that can be affecting a child’s ability to chew. In order for us to “teach” a child to chew, we (OTs) must first figure out what is leading to the difficulty with chewing.
There are many areas that occupational therapists assess when evaluating chewing.
· Seating: First, how is the child sitting? Are they seated in an appropriate sized chair where they have support? Or, are they leaning to the side and slumped over? If a child’s body is focused on sitting upright, they can’t put their full attention on chewing.
When a child is seated to eat, they should be seated upright with their feet flat on the ground. If their feet can’t reach the ground we sometimes place a pillow, box, or stool under their feet. If the child is unable to sit upright they may need a more supportive seating option.
· Sensory: The sensory system is very complex, and can lead to difficulties with attending to eating. The child’s body must first be calm and ready to sit at the table. If they are seeking movement, they likely will not be able to concentrate on chewing. Or, the child may have difficulty processing a certain texture or taste in their mouth, making them avoid chewing. For example, they may not like the way it feels when there are crumbs all in their mouth, or the food may be too squishy and have too much juice.
In this case, we usually work on organizing the sensory system, grading food choices, and food chaining.
· Jaw strength and endurance: If your child is just learning to chew, their muscles may tire easily. Some foods that are chewier can be difficult to chew over long time, leading to fatigue of the muscles.
Here, I usually start with offering easily chewable foods, and progressively increase the texture. I also sometimes recommend having kids practice with nuk brushes or “chewy tubes” to increase their jaw strength. It really depends on the kid.
· Tongue movement and lateralization: in order to chew efficiently, our tongue has to be able to lateralize the food – essentially, move it to the side of your mouth for your teeth. If a child doesn’t have this movement, you may see them trying to use their tongue to mash the food. Sometimes, kids with a tongue tie may have difficulty with this.
If a child is old enough, I’ll have them look in the mirror for feedback when practicing moving their tongue side to side. With younger kids I’ll arrange for the food to be at their teeth so they can practice the actual chewing motion.
· Motor planning: A motor plan is when we plan a movement in our head and carry it out. Some kids may have a hard time with this. Sometimes, kids who have a hard time with motor plans can also have a hard time planning the chewing movement.
This can first be practiced out of the table. By practicing lots of new movements, kids can often improve their motor planning. By practicing the chewing motion repeatedly, they will also form a motor plan. Ways to help with this include using a mirror, modeling it for the child, and usually verbal cues such as “chew” or “bite.”
· Mindfulness: When we are really hungry, we sometimes forget to chew (at least I know I do). Making sure that the child isn’t starving when they come to the table usually helps them focus more on the actual chewing motion, slow down, and enjoy their meal!
So as you can see, there is A LOT that goes into chewing and teaching a child to chew. Working with someone who is knowledgeable in this area can help parents figure out why their child is having difficulty, and create a plan that works for them!
This is something we can do for you at OT 4 ME!
We also offer a FREE first call with an occupational therapist to discuss your concerns and some possible ways that we can help! All you have to do is fill out this simple form, email Samantha@theot4me.com, or call/text 561-223-1620 to set up a time to chat.
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Let’s make healthy fun,
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