Developing chewing and swallowing skills

The age at which to introduce complementary foods (solids), and then when to offer different types and textures of foods, depends on your child’s individual development.

You need to balance safety concerns about the risk of choking with your child’s need to develop their ability to chew and move food around in their mouths.

There may be a ‘critical window of opportunity’ when more lumpy foods should be introduced. Research has found that babies introduced to lumpier textured food after 10 months of age had greater feeding difficulties at 15 months than those introduced to them between 6–9 months.

You also need to consider your child’s nutrition needs and the development of healthy eating habits when you choose complementary foods.

  • After around six months of age, complementary food is increasingly necessary to ensure your child gets the nutrients they need (especially iron and zinc).
  • Early food choices may influence your child’s preferences and eating habits as they get older.

Eating involves both the senses and motor (movement) skills. It’s through their experience of a food that children learn how to adjust their motor responses to deal with the specific qualities of the food.

If you gradually offer foods with more texture over time, it gives your child the opportunity to develop their biting and chewing skills.

Very young children with front teeth are able to bite off food, but they may not be able to grind it effectively into smaller pieces until their baby molars have come through.

  • Your baby’s first molars (chewing teeth) will usually come through between 12–18 months of age.
  • Children’s second molars don’t normally come through completely until they’re over two and a half years old.
  • Some three and four year olds can be still learning to chew and grind effectively.

Children will often try stuffing their mouths full of food when they’re around two years old. This can increase their risk of choking.

During this stage, you may need to:

  • offer smaller pieces of food
  • monitor how much food they can access (ie, on their plate).

By around three years of age children can safely manage to eat most foods. However, you’ll still need to be careful with foods with high choking risk.

Finger foods

When children start reaching for and picking up foods – usually between 7–8 months of age – safe finger foods should be offered.

  • Early finger foods should be very soft (eg, soft ripe fruit, slightly overcooked vegetables).
  • Finger foods should always be of a size and shape small hands can easily hold.

Babies don’t get much nutrition from attempts at self feeding with finger foods at first, so it’s important you keep offering puréed or mashed spoon foods as well.

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