How Babies Learn to Chew

a smiling baby with dark hair holding a piece of artichoke in the side of his mouth
Sebastián, 9 months, eats artichoke, triggering the phasic bite reflex

Babies don’t need to learn how to swallow. But they do need to learn how to chew. 

Swallowing is a brainstem reflex present in utero. Babies are born with the ability to swallow. Some struggle with the oral motor skills to latch at the breast or feed from a bottle, but most are born with the ability to swallow. Chewing, however, is a motor pattern a baby must learn. 

Fact: It’s actually tricky for babies to move purée around in the mouth. This is because purées do not trigger the reflexes to move the tongue. To swallow purée, baby needs to rely on a sucking pattern. But without a nipple to push their tongue against, it’s hard. To compensate, babies often suck on a spoon. This sucking moves the purée back and the swallow is triggered.

With solid food, it’s more complicated. First, we need to bite the food, move it to the side to chew, move it back to the center of the tongue, and then backwards to swallow. Thankfully, babies are born with reflexes for this: the phasic bite reflex + tongue lateralization reflex. Ever stick a finger on baby’s gums and feel them bite? That’s the phasic bite reflex. The tongue lateralization reflex moves the tongue to the side when the edge of the tongue is touched.

Importantly, these reflexes start to fade around 9 months of age. Which means the most strategic time to learn how to chew is from 6 to 8 months of age.

To learn to chew, a baby needs chewable food that they can easily manipulate with their hands and mouth. This is why we love long, resistive foods: mango pit, chicken drumstick, corn cob, spare rib, etc. These foods trigger both reflexes beautifully. Do we expect much consumption? No. The point is practice.

Ads of the last 100 years set parents up to believe that babies need to gradually move from one stage of thickness to another to learn how to eat. This is not true.

We are building a professional’s portal of courses and white papers designed for pediatric professionals who want to learn (and unlearn) about the neurobiology of swallowing, early introduction of finger food, etc.

If you’d like to be added to our professionals’ email list, email [email protected]

Reviewed by:

K. Rappaport, OTR/L, MS, SCFES, IBCLC

K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT

K. Tatiana Maldonado, MS, CCC-SLP, CBIS, CLEC

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