Watching your baby take bites of food only to see it fall back out of their mouth can be frustrating and nerve-wracking! Is baby getting enough to eat? Are they unable to swallow? Are they a picky eater?
Well, we have good news: For the majority of typically developing babies and toddlers, spitting is not only totally normal—but a necessary part of learning to eat. And for babies, it rarely means they didn’t like the food.
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Callie, 9 months, eats fish fingers and spits food out as she goes.
Callie at 12 months, spitting orange segments. Toddlers will spit out foods with tough skins or membranes often as they are tough to chew fully.
When it comes to learning to chew and swallow, babies have a TON of skills to practice and acquire. First, the baby needs to identify the food on their plate. Next, they visually engage with the food. Then they need to know how to reach for and grasp the food. And lastly, they need the hand-eye coordination and motor planning skills to get the food accurately to their mouth (or at least some of it!). The magic happens once the food is in their mouth.
Once your baby has successfully brought food to their mouth there’s quite a bit of action that needs to take place before they can swallow it. Babies are born with oral reflexes to learn to chew and swallow, but mature chewing requires a lot of motor skills, including moving the tongue, keeping the food on the side of the mouth for chewing, moving the jaw up and down to break down the food, and then finally, transitioning the food back to the center of the tongue and backward to swallow. Which is a lot of work!
Beyond the oral motor skills required to chew and swallow food, mature chewing also requires sensory awareness. Baby needs to learn where the food is in their mouth, how the tongue moves the food, and where do they want the food to go.
Infants learn through connecting movement with touch and sight. Sometimes babies need visual feedback to better learn how to move food and where it is in their mouth, plus where it’s going. This is what’s happening when babies spit food!
Infants and young toddlers (before 18 months) will attempt to chew food and spit out partially-chewed food. This occurs for two reasons:
Visual Inspecting: The child needs to SEE if the food is chewed thoroughly before swallowing.
Motor Planning Mistake: The child simply hasn’t learned the boundaries of their mouth where the food moves out of the mouth rather than sideways or backward for swallowing.
By visually seeing and touching the food they’ve spit out, babies are learning about chewing. Often, kiddos will spit out the food, visually inspect it, and put it right back in their mouths! Try to let them do this and not to show any disgust—it’s just one way to solidify chewing skills!
Now that you know why your baby or toddler may be spitting out food, let’s chat about what to do. The easiest answer? Let it be! Try not to intervene or show disapproval. Your child is doing exactly what they should be to learn how to chew thoroughly.
In fact, take advantage of your baby spitting out food. Talk to them about what they are doing. For example: “Wow! Looks like you have a big bite in your mouth. Was it too much? Looks like that big bite was too much for your mouth, and you had to spit it out.” Or, “Wow! You are doing such a good job learning to chew that! I think it fell out of your mouth. Let’s look and see.”
It may seem silly, but the more babies and children are repetitively exposed to language explaining their actions, the more they grow and learn.
If you’re taking babe somewhere where spitting would be frowned upon (like your mom’s house or a dinner party), try not to fret. Here are some tips to help head spitting off at the pass when you need to:
Pace your child with small amounts of food within their reach at a time.
Make the food easy to handle and easy to chew.
Be prepared with a response to your family or anyone who comments on it. If Uncle Ted makes a remark about it, you can always just say that your baby is “still learning to chew and interestingly, experts say that babies actually need to learn how to spit before they develop mature swallowing skills.” Or, a simple, "Back off my baby!" can work too (wink, wink).
If you find that an older baby (closer to one year of age) who has had ample practice with finger foods continues to spit a lot, there are three things you can do:
Make sure your child shows up to the table hungry. You want baby to have the hunger drive to swallow the things they put in their mouth. Consider spacing out bottle/breastfeeds and table foods 1.5 to 2 hours apart.
Build improved tongue lateralization (the side-to-side motion of the tongue) needed to move food to the side of the mouth. Provide opportunities for exploration of long, resistive sticks (spareribs with most of the meat cut off, celery sticks, etc.) of food dipped in a preferred sauce for the child to gnaw on. This encourages the tongue to move side to side while also biting on something.
Model, model model! Babies learn by watching you! Model with very exaggerated tongue movement (placing the food in your mouth and dramatically moving it to your back teeth to chew). Then tell your kiddo it's going “ALL the way to my belly!” (and point to your stomach.) Open your mouth and show that the food is gone.
One common culprit is teething, especially in young toddlers. The first set of molars usually come in between 12-15 months and can lend to some erratic eating patterns. Some other reasons include illness, being too full, being too hungry or too tired. Spitting is not a sign that your child doesn't like the food--it is simply evidence that they need more practice doing the more difficult motor pattern of moving the food to the side for chewing, or that they are possibly experiencing discomfort inside the mouth if teething is a factor.Some strategies/resources you can use to help your babe participate a bit more in the meal are as follows:
Consider implementing a feeding schedule if you aren't already on one. A full baby or toddler has less motivation to swallow food to fill the belly.
If you suspect teething, you might consider offering cold, soft foods such as refrigerated cucumber or mango pit, yogurt, hummus, mashed beans, etc as part of the meal. Offering a cold teether a few minutes before the meal can help as well until the pain subsides.
Offer teethers or long, resistive pieces of food to continue to build side to side tongue movement—the building block of chewing. (Read more here: How babies learn to chew)
Spitting is a normal and necessary part of learning to eat—and it will go on for quite some time! The best way to help your baby or toddler learn is through constant, repetitive practice and to give them the freedom to explore and visually inspect food (including partially-chewed food!). Try not to react with disgust or disapproval and instead, treat each spit as an opportunity to engage with your child and verbally discuss what happened.
Note: If your child is putting too much food in their mouth and not understanding how to spit, read up on how to coach them to spit or how to handle food pocketing or shoveling.
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