Most people assume babies should be offered purees or soft, easily mashed foods exclusively for the first several months of learning to eat. However, offering food teethers or long hard sticks of food which do not easily break apart—foods like mango pits with most of the fruit flesh cut away, a thick pineapple core, frozen celery, or corn on the cob—has many benefits for babies learning to eat. Continue reading to understand the benefits of food teethers, when to offer food teethers, what foods make the best teethers, and why food teethers offer benefits over plastic teethers.
The benefits of resistive sticks are vast.
Supports oral motor development by:
Triggering the tongue movements needed for learning how to chew
Helping baby form a mental map of the mouth
Helps baby learn how to chew challenging food in a low-risk way
Strengthens jaw muscles and builds tone
Decreases overly sensitive gag reflexes
Can’t be stuffed into the mouth all at once
Support oral hygiene
Easy for baby to pick up and eat independently
As soon as baby is ready to start solids (usually around 6 months old) you can serve resistive food teethers to baby. Offering finger foods for baby to explore, chew, and either spit out or swallow is an excellent first step in starting solids, and all babies can benefit from practice with resistive food teethers, but some new eaters do especially well with these resistive foods. Here are some common situations where food teethers are particularly useful:
Intense gagging with soft food and/or with purées
Not chewing food enough to swallow it
Biting and sucking on food
Biting into foods and swallowing the food whole without chewing
Stuffing cheeks with food
These scenarios are prime opportunities for a few weeks of practice with long, hard sticks of food. Even if baby is learning to eat a variety of textures without issue, resistive food teethers can still offer plenty of sensory feedback and allow baby the opportunity to practice the motor pattern of chewing and tongue lateralization, build oral sensory awareness, and learn about taste and texture.
It is typically safe to introduce or continue offering highly resistive foods to older babies and toddlers with teeth as these foods, by nature, are extremely hard to bite through. However, all foods should be checked first for loose, potentially brittle, or tapered spots, all of which should be avoided. Children with teeth should have close supervision at all times to be sure they are not able to break off any pieces of these foods. If they do, stay calm, coach them to spit the piece out, and remove the food.
And now, the list of our favorite resistive foods for babies starting solids or babies who need to rapidly advance oral motor skills:
In addition to the foods above, here is a list of our runner up foods. These foods, while not unbreakable, they will advance similar skills, just in a less intense way:
In our careers as infant swallowing experts and feeding therapists, we have worked with thousands of babies—including hospitalized babies with medically complex needs—and what we know is that there is tremendous power in resistive sticks of food. Not only does the shape and consistency of these foods trigger reflexes needed for chewing and practicing the motor patterns needed to become a safe eater, but it happens in a functional way, in context at the table. All while learning about taste and texture.
Maya, 6 months, munches on a chicken drumstick with the skin, cartilage, and most of the meat cut off.
Beth, 6 months, munches on a mango pit rolled in coconut to make it less slippery.
Mila, 7 months, munches on a pineapple core.
For all the benefits of resistive sticks of food, consumption is not one of them. No, these foods are for practicing skills in a low-risk way. So, if you’d like baby to get some food in the belly at the same time consider serving other foods for consumption. Some suggested pairings below.
Mango Pit + Puree
Corn on the Cob + Polenta
Meat on the Bone + Mashed Potatoes
Pineapple Core + Yogurt
Celery (raw) + Hummus
Use the mashed or puréed food as a dip, finger paint, or serve on a pre-loaded spoon. Be prepared for the possibility that baby may not want to let go of the resistive food. That’s okay; try not to force it. Solid food does not need to be the primary source of nutrition until closer to 12 months of age.
Learning to chew is challenging work that takes months of consistent practice. When a baby puts a soft piece of food in their mouth, the food typically stimulates the chewing reflex once or twice as the food is mashed into a purée and swallowed or is spit or gagged out. When a baby puts a hard stick of food in their mouth, they stimulate the phasic bite and tongue lateralization reflexes repeatedly, in a functional way, and encourage baby to repetitively practice the motor pattern required for chewing. Because the food does not break apart, the reflexes continue to be stimulated, providing baby with intensive practice.
A baby learns to crawl by using reflexive movements and sensory feedback overtime to build skill. Reflexes are automatic movements that happen in the same way each time based on a specific input. Babies learn to move through reflexes coupled with sensory feedback from their body and the environment. Over time, the automatic movement fades and is replaced with a movement that baby can control and use more flexibly.
For example, learning the gross motor skill of rolling:
Baby has a reflex called asymmetric tonic neck reflex (ATNR) that causes their arm to extend out when they turn their head towards that arm. This reflex helps your baby look at their hand and roll to their side.
Once baby is on their side, they may get distracted and look up while kicking out their legs and end up rolling onto their tummy.
At first, the reflex and the right kick at the right time get baby to their front, but eventually, they figure out the sequence.
As the reflex fades away, baby learns to roll and gain the ability to use their arms more flexibly for other things, like reaching and crawling.
As baby learns to move and roll, they spend a lot of time in different positions—on their tummies, on their sides, and on their backs.
They receive full-body sensory input from whatever they are lying on.
As they move, baby’s muscles contract while pushing against the floor.
The feel of the floor, plus the feel of their muscles pushing against the floor, sends signals to the brain, helping babies learn where their body is in space. This is called proprioception.
Once baby is rolling, they can start to learn more complex skills, such as pushing up into sitting, crawling, and eventually walking.
Oral motor skill is developed similarly to the gross motor skill of rolling, thus requiring the same opportunities for the muscles of the mouth to activate reflexes and use sensory feedback. Babies are born with reflexes to build chewing skills:
Phasic bite reflex
Tongue lateralization reflex
Phasic bite reflex
The phasic bite reflex, present at birth, causes the lower jaw to drop and elevate—or bite/munch—against a stimulus. Stick your finger in baby’s mouth, touch the gums, and you’ll feel light biting and releasing—the biting is weak and resembles an opening-closing motion. This phasic bite reflex begins to integrate or disappear around 9 months of age.
Tongue lateralization reflex
Babies are also born with a tongue lateralization reflex. This reflex causes the tongue to move to the side of the mouth, towards a stimulus, to touch, lick, and explore whatever touches the tongue. When you touch the side of baby’s tongue, it darts to that side. When you chew food, notice that your tongue performs this motion to move food to your molars for chewing. It’s not a reflex anymore but an established motor pattern your brain uses to move and chew food. This reflex also starts to fade around 9 months as baby learns to chew and move the tongue more flexibly.
Our mouths are one of the most sensitive parts of our bodies. The human mouth has many sensory receptors to detect touch, taste, temperature, pressure, and other input types. Babies are driven to explore with their mouths to learn about their world simply because the mouth is sensitive.
Successful eating requires more than just the up and down movement of the jaw. It involves:
Feeling how much food is in the mouth
Where the food is located in the mouth
Know if it’s chewed enough to swallow safely
Feeding therapists call this “oral sensory awareness.” Oral sensory awareness is the ability to distinguish where something is in the mouth. It’s a vital component of eating. Imagine chewing a bite of omelet and suddenly feeling the crunch of eggshell. Oral sensory awareness and tongue coordination allow you to locate the shell, separate it from the rest of the food in your mouth, and move it discretely forward and out of your mouth without spitting out the entire bite. We do the same thing when de-pitting an olive or spitting a watermelon seed.
When this happens, we aren’t using our eyes; our brains visualize what’s going on inside our mouth. We have a mental image of our mouth and where everything is in relation to other parts.
Babies aren’t born with a mental map of their mouth. They are born with a very sensitive mouth and sucking reflexes that allow them to eat from the day they are born. As they start learning to eat food, they must move their tongue and mouth in many new and increasingly complex ways, which requires them to develop that mental map. Each time things touch the inside of the mouth, a map slowly "draws" in the brain. At first, this map will be blurry and poorly defined. As babies explore foods, especially sensory-rich foods, they begin adding detail and richness to their map. As they develop the map inside their mouth, they gain more control, figuring out how to move food around appropriately. They also become more confident in their skill to move food around.
Many types of oral sensory input help babies form the mental map, but bigger inputs over larger areas of the mouth are more effective than light sensory inputs. There are two types of input that feeding therapists find most effective for sensory-motor learning, both of which are achieved with resistive food teethers:
Touch or tactile input—when food touches a part or many parts of the mouth
Proprioceptive input (messages from the muscles and joints)—when the mouth gnaws on firm or resistive foods that don’t break when chewing
The simultaneous combination of tactile and proprioceptive input is most effective for forming the map.
Much like the ATN reflex and sensory input help a baby learn to roll, the phasic bite, tongue lateralization, and sensory feedback (especially consistent multi-sensory feedback) help a baby learn to eat effectively.
Many nourishing foods are challenging to chew—raw veggies and fruits, meats, nuts, and seeds all require considerable jaw strength to tear or break apart. Those same foods also require the endurance to chew the food thoroughly, tongue coordination to move each bite around the mouth and away from the throat, and then the ability to move the food backward to swallow. Managing tough-to-chew foods requires oral sensory awareness.
Building strong chewing skills to eat challenging yet nourishing foods safely takes time and practice, and the only way to develop these skills is to practice chewing with lots of different foods and textures.
Mature chewing skills require three things:
Coordinated tongue lateralization (the ability to move the tongue side-to-side)
Strong jaw movement (chewing or munching)
Precise oral sensory awareness of the inside of the mouth (mental map)
Purées do not stimulate the development of these chewing skills, and while babies put their fingers and toys in their mouth, thus stimulating these reflexes and providing sensory feedback, research tells us that motor skills are best learned in context—meaning, to learn to chew food, baby needs opportunities to practice chewing food.
When a food is challenging to chew, there is the potential for increased choking risks for babies and toddlers. Rather than practicing with these choking risk foods, food teethers can help build skills with significantly lower risk, preparing a child for later practice with more challenging foods. Offering food teethers or long hard sticks of food—foods like thick raw carrots, frozen celery, beef or pork ribs, chicken legs, corn on the cob, mango pits—is a perfect way to help baby build oral motor skill and oral sensory awareness by letting baby:
Practice chewing by repetitively stimulating reflexive phasic biting (chewing)
Encourage tongue lateralization (side-to-side movement) to build skill and more complex movement
Get deep pressure sensation to the gums, tongue, and cheeks, providing intense sensory feedback to the brain, building coordination, and developing a mental map of the mouth
Learn graded control or how hard or soft they need to push with their jaw to chew effectively
Motor learning theory, which explores how we learn to move our bodies in coordinated ways, has deeply explored this concept and found that task-specific practice matters for learning. This concept, called experience-dependent neuroplasticity, explains that the learning centers in the brain activate more during task-specific practice.
For example, if you want to get better at hitting a tennis ball, you have to practice hitting a tennis ball. Exercising your arm muscles may make you stronger but won't necessarily make you a better tennis player. And swinging a racket back and forth over and over won’t build up the nuanced movement patterns needed to connect with a ball.
Similarly, munching on a teether may build strength in the jaw and will stimulate the tongue to move around, but without the added demand of an actual piece of food, the research tells us these skills aren’t transferrable. A baby must take the component skills of biting and tongue movement and integrate them to manipulate a piece of food—which isn’t homogenous or consistent like a teether. Food is variable, and every bite and experience is different—texture, flavor, and consistency. This variability allows the brain to learn to problem solve in the moment and use the component skills together to chew.
K. Rappaport, OTR/L, MS, SCFES, IBCLC
K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT
Hi Solid Starts, I’ve been following you for a while now. We live in Australia. I have a 3 year old and a 6 month old who is just starting his solid journey. Whilst he’s not really loving the purees right now… he’s totally loving the big, resistive “foods”. He’s had a lamb cutlet, corn cob, and a chicken bone. Thank you for what you do!!!
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