by Kath Megaw, Registered Dietitian
Often we think that the ability to eat is something that comes naturally to all babies. However, just like when learning to walk and talk, a baby has to follow a series of steps to practise and learn the specific skills required for eating safely.
It takes almost all parts of the body to learn to eat. The brain processes what needs to be done while eating, then sends messages to the rest of the body parts. The lungs supply the body with oxygen needed to function. The heart builds up endurance for eating. The eyes are needed to see the food and its various characteristics, and to mirror what other successful eaters do at meal times. The ears hear the crunch or swish of the food and the instructions related to eating given by Mom or Dad. The mouth, lips and tongue manipulate the various food types and textures and swallow them safely. Last but not least, the stomach digests and breaks down the food source.
From a sensory perspective, eating requires the use of all five senses, resulting in it being the most difficult sensory task that a baby has to master.
The sucking reflex develops while a baby is in his mother’s womb. The baby is born with other reflexes that play an important role in eating. These include the gag reflex, the rooting reflex and the swallowing reflex. When a baby is born, he requires a coordinated suck, swallow and breathe pattern in order to be able to feed successfully at the breast or bottle. This pattern is not always fully established and may take time to master. As the baby matures, his sucking reflex becomes stronger and more rhythmical.
Once a baby transitions to solid food, new oral motor skills are targeted. These include lip closure, slurping from a cup and spoon, circular tongue movements, jaw grading (the different levels of chewing), and tongue lateralisation (moving food from one side of the mouth to the other).
Solid foods also come in a variety of tastes and textures, which requires significant amounts of oral motor-sensory processing by the baby. This is so the baby is able to distinguish between the different tastes and textures as well as learn the motor plan required to eat and manage a certain food type. It is at this stage that a baby can show preferences for certain flavours or textures of food.
Babies follow the food continuum and only progress to the next stage once they have acquired the motor and sensory skills of the current stage. The stages start with purées, then move on to soft solids, soft finger foods, mixed textures (such as spaghetti bolognaise) and then finally hard foods (such as cookies) that require biting and chewing.
Eating is no easy task. It requires exposure to a variety of age-appropriate tastes and textures to develop the necessary oral motor and sensory skills to become a safe and successful eater.