As infant swallowing specialists and feeding therapists, we are often touting the benefits of unbreakable, resistive sticks of food (or food teethers) for babies starting solids, babies in transition from spoon-feeding to finger food, as well as for babies with sensitive gag reflexes and developmental delays. This is because resistive sticks of food—like a pineapple core, mango pit, corn on the cob, and for the omnivorous, a spare rib or chicken drumstick—help to rapidly advance oral motor skills. Here’s how.
First, we want to point out that many of the most nutritious foods are challenging to chew. Raw veggies and fruits, as well as nuts, seeds, and meats all require substantial jaw strength to tear, endurance to chew, as well as excellent coordination to move around and swallow. Resistive sticks of food act as teethers and give babies the unique opportunity to practice the skills needed for challenging-to-chew foods in a low-risk way.
Mature chewing skills require three things:
- Coordinated tongue lateralization
- Strong jaw movement/munching
- Precise oral sensory awareness of the inside of the mouth
Although babies put their fingers and toys in their mouth, stimulating these reflexes and providing some sensory feedback, research tells us that motor skills are best learned in context.
Which is to say that baby will advance most rapidly when practicing the skills needed above with real food. To learn to chew, baby needs to be offered chewable food.
The problem is that most parents are afraid to offer babies chewable food, a fear that is inextricably linked with the history of baby food. Enter resistive sticks of food. Easy for baby to self-feed, rapidly advances oral motor skills, but low risk.
Benefits of Resistive Sticks of Food for Babies
The benefits of resistive sticks are vast. With decades of experience in offering babies of all developmental levels and varying needs, here are our observations:
Resistive sticks of food…
Help baby form a mental map of the mouth.
When babies mouth and teethe on resistive sticks of food, they get deep pressure sensation to their gums and tongue, giving the brain feedback about the mouth and its boundaries. To become a safe eater, baby needs good oral sensory awareness to manage challenging foods to keep the food on the molars while chewing and to know when those foods have been broken down enough to safely swallow. Resistive sticks of food advance this awareness very rapidly.
Trigger the tongue movements needed for learning how to chew.
Resistive sticks of food trigger the tongue to move side to side, a movement that is needed for babies to move a bite of food to the side of the gums to be chewed. In contrast, when babies are spoon-fed purees, the puree is sucked to swallow and there is no side movement of the tongue or chewing.
Helps baby learn how to chew challenging food in a low-risk way.
Resistive sticks of food stimulate reflexive phasic biting reflex, and helps baby learn how hard or soft they need to push with their jaw to actually chew effectively (we call this “graded control.” This is an extremely important part of learning to eat safely. Babies who lack practice with graded control may attempt to swallow food whole.
Strengthens jaw muscles and builds tone.
Resistive sticks of food provide ample opportunities and practice to work all of the muscles in the mouth in an amplified way. The repetitive biting and gripping on the stick of food strengthens jaw muscles (which will help baby chew more easily and thoroughly) and builds overall tone. For this reason, we often promote resistive sticks of food for babies with Down syndrome.
Decreases overly sensitive gag reflexes.
Resistive sticks of food offer repetitive pressure and sensory input to the tongue, which helps decrease the sensitivity of the gag reflex and advances neurological input to map the mouth. Read more about gagging and when to know if baby’s gagging is a problem.
Can’t be stuffed into the mouth all at once.
Babies have a tendency to stuff things in their mouth because they lack the fine motor and oral motor skills required to pick up small pieces or to take accurate bites. Resistive sticks of food like corn on the cob, meat on the bone, and mango pits cannot be stuffed into the mouth and do an excellent job of slowing baby down in a natural, non-controlling way.
Help baby learn how to take accurate bites.
One of the most common reasons parents abandon finger food and resort back to spoon-feeding is the fear that baby will take a too-big bite and try to swallow it. First, rest assured that if a too-big piece of food or an unchewed piece of food gets too far back in the mouth that baby’s body will trigger the gag reflex to thrust the food up and forward, where baby can either continue to work with the food more to break it down or spit it out. Resistive sticks of food give baby a low risk, repetitive opportunity to practice taking bites and to learn what is too big, what is small, and what is just the right amount.
Support oral hygiene.
Resistive sticks of food tend to act like natural toothbrushes for the gums and teeth, supporting good oral hygiene.
Easy for baby to pick up and eat independently.
Young babies lack the fine motor skills / hand articulation to be able to pick up small pieces of food. And in fact, if a piece of food is too small, baby will likely tire of trying and give up. Resistive sticks of food offer baby an easy, low-risk way of self-feeding, which is beneficial in advancing oral motor skills and preventing picky eating. Bonus: if baby puts too much of a resistive stick of food in their mouth, they can pull it out independently. This is important as when caregivers stick their fingers in baby’s mouth they inadvertently increase the risk of choking.
Bonus: Resistive sticks of food can help with teething pain and often give the caregiver 10 solid minutes of peace and quiet. Need we say more?
5 Fantastic Resistive Food Teethers for Babies
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.
Foods to Offer With Resistive Sticks of Food
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
You can use the mashed or pureed food as a dip, finger paint, or serve on a pre-loaded spoon. Just 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.
You have time.
Kary Rappaport, OTR/L, MS, SCFES, IBCLC
Kimberly Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT