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mess is a must: some how-to’s for feeding solids and how kids learn to eat

Posted by on Nov 8, 2010 in Blog Posts | 19 comments

I was talking to a group of moms and dads of older infants and young toddlers about feeding recently.  We talked about exposing kids to a variety of family foods,  Division of Responsibility, what textures were appropriate (and so much more!) One mom chimed in, “I won’t give Sally any messy foods. I dress her in the cutest outfits and I don’t want her to mess them up!”

Problem here. Kids need to be allowed to make a mess to learn to eat. They need to be allowed to practice scooping, slapping, rubbing, squishing. They need to “do it myself!” even if it means half the sauce ends up on their laps (or hair) and not in their mouths. Trying to keep kids neat, either by limiting their food choices to neat or low-stain foods or by not allowing them to touch or play with their foods will increase the odds that you will struggle with your child accepting a variety of foods.

Let them get messy. Don’t scrape the food off their mouths and cheeks. If a child isn’t bothered by food on their hands or faces (or ears…) leave it there until they are done eating.  Constantly wiping them off between bites interferes with their enjoyment of the process, is unnecessary, and for kids who are easily distracted or sensitive to touch, can really put them off eating.

Put a mat on the floor (or not-I used a dust-buster and a washcloth,) pull them up to the table as appropriate (wiping a table down is easier often than a high-chair tray,) strip the kiddos down in warm weather, get great bibs, or change clothes. M often ate in her cotton onesies most of which I got at used clothing stores and I didn’t mind if they were all stained. I also often changed her after  meals. (My friend made her these lovely bibs which were made from soft hand-towels that pulled over her head. There were no strings, I didn’t worry if it was too tight. It wasn’t a rigid plastic or noisy which might distract some kids…)

Note, I just finished a 3 day training focusing on sensory integration, spectrum and oral-motor issues around feeding. I will be bringing more of these issues into posts. I was happy to hear that the only books they recommend to parents (even though most of the families they work with have kids who are not typically developing)  are those from Ellyn Satter!

How do you cope with the mess?

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19 Comments

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  1. Twistie

    Hee! This post reminds me of a story my mother told me about one of my older brothers. Apparently he insisted on feeding himself at a time when medical advice of the day would have been to spoonfeed him, around six or eight months old. My mother, always a practical woman, decided that if feeding himself made him happy, it was the smart thing to do. So every day at mealtimes, she would take him out in the back yard, put him in his high chair, serve him his food, and simply turn the garden hose on him when he was done!

    She figured that way the kid was happy and developing independence, the food was going into him (mostly, as opposed to hardly at all when she tried to feed him by spoon), the house was kept reasonable, and the garden got some watering every day.

    And people wondered how she wound up with kids who adored things like Brussels sprouts and spinach!

    • katja

      I love this post. She followed his lead. Parents these days second guess themselves so much, want to do everything right and alas sadly make thongs worse sometimes. I can imagine how miserable they would have all been had she insisted on spoon-feeding him. Go moms!

  2. Heather

    We bought this chair as a somewhat cheaper alternative to the Tripp-trapp and have really loved it!

    http://www.onestepahead.com/catalog/product.jsp?productId=536832&parentCategoryId=85181&categoryId=85205

  3. Michellers

    My daughter is now 4-1/2, but it feels like just yesterday she was smearing avocado all over her head. Prior to having a child, my husband referred to that covered-in-food look as “birth control” ha ha. But having gone through the process now with his own child he is much more tolerant. Or maybe his gag-reflex has just been de-sensitized.

    The craziest thing about teaching our daughter to eat was how much work it was/is. How does this species survive?! My daughter literally choked and gagged on everything she put in her mouth for 6 months before she started to figure it out. I had never before experienced something so simultaneously funny and scary.

    By the way, the bibs which are like shirts worn backwards that tie in the back are awesome for kids who get distracted by regular bibs.

    Millener: “dog” LoL! Cats just don’t provide the same floor and baby-cleaning function.

    • the milliner

      Ha! Our cat provides the same cleaning function for ice cream bowls ;). But yes, not as efficient as a dog, that’s for sure. Now if only I could get the dog to clean the rest of the house…

  4. Elizabeth

    I really like the Tripp Trapp chairs or other chairs that allow the child to sit *right at the table* versus a high chair. Yes, messier, but it really helps them feel like a part of the family right from the beginning.

    • katja

      I LOVE the Tripp-Trapp and others like it. They are great, but pricey, but I figure with the high chairs, the various booster and kaboost products I tried, it would have been worth it.
      The foot support is really important for kids, especially those with sensory issues or who are on the spectrum.

  5. Mechelle

    I have been quietly enjoying your blog for a few months and share it with anyone willing to listen to me. I am looking forward to your future posts on sensory integration and feeding. I have a 5 year old that has sensory issues and attended feeding therapy as a 2 year old due to his issues. It was a very gentle therapy and unlike some others that we researched where the child was forced to eat. My little guy has come out of his shell with eating but I’m still very interested in feeding issues. Thank you so much!

    • katja

      Mechelle,
      I am really interested in families who have been through feeding therapy and their experiences. I’m mulling this all over. Will think about either some kind of online-forum or other… not sure…Please keep me posted. Maybe I’ll just post a blog asking for parents to share their feeding therapy experiences…

  6. Heather

    Thanks. I’ll trust my instincts that eventually he’ll use utensils and keep our focus on enjoying family meals.

  7. Heather

    Katja – this is a really timely post for me. When my son was an infant and toddler, messy eating didn’t bother me at all. But now he is 4 (and just a month away from 5) and is still a very messy eater. He will use a spoon for cereal, soup, and yogurt, but pretty much everything else he eats with his fingers. It doesn’t really bother me, but he’s old enough now I feel like I should be encouraging better table manners, especially for eating in public and at school. But if I ask/remind him to use a fork, our meals start moving towards a battle of wills, which is something we’ve managed to avoid so far. Do you have any suggestions for encouraging utensil use and maintaining peaceful meals?

    Really love your blog, BTW! Thanks for writing.

    • katja

      Kids often use a combination of utensils and fingers until grade-school age. Assuming that he doesn’t have any issues with coordination (and it doesn’t sound concerning) I wouldn’t worry too much. Before you can have good manners you have to really learn to eat, to regulate how much food, to be open to a variety of foods. Some kids also are really more developed with gross motor than fine motor, or vice-versa. My 5 yo prefers to eat most foods with a spoon, as well as a fork and fingers. I do think you can start to work on manners when eating out if it doesn’t get into a battle. Maybe talk a little beforehand about how you are going to Gramma’s and at her house you’d really like if he tried to use his fork more (or not :) Combo utensils and fingers is OK. Parents can really spoil meals by insisting on table manners that aren’t developmentally appropriate. (ie insisting a 3 year old never use fingers…) See how things go, have faith that he will mature with his eating skills. It is OK to expect kind and courteous behavior though that doesn’t disrupt other diners, but if it’s a matter of skill with utensils, he’ll probably grow up to eat the way you do without too much intervention. Keep me posted and good luck!

  8. the milliner

    One word: Dog. :)

    But seriously, we just don’t worry about it much. And DS’ clothes are rarely stained, despite the fact that he often doesn’t want to use a bib. I change him after he has breakfast so that the pj’s get tossed in the wash. Same goes for end of the day. Clothes are usually a bit dirty (or drool soaked) from daycare anyhow. Blueberries are probably the worst offenders. Usually he’ll wear a bib for soup, tomato sauce and yogurt. He often asks me to wipe his hands, so I think he doesn’t like to be overly messy. But some days there is definitely yogurt in the hair.

    And really, the dog does a really good job of cleaning the floor and highchair (pull up to the table style). If it’s just the two of us for dinner, we eat together at DS’ kid sized table, so really easy to wipe that down. And like I said, the dog does a good job of cleaning the legs of the table (and the top of it if she gets to it without me seeing).

    • katja

      HA! forgot about dogs… How old is your little one? Is he able to start wiping his own hands? Having a little washcloth handy is great as they continue with the “I do it!” phase! Thanks for the tips.

      • the milliner

        My little guy is 2y5m. I have started leaving the washcloth on the table beside him (when I remember!!). But it’s worth a reminder to encourage him to do it. Though I’m relaxed about him being messy during the meal, once he gets up and starts wandering around (with jammy, greasy or yogurty fingers especially), it’s hard to resist the urge for me to ‘do it myself!, to save the sofa and other harder to wash items.

        • katja

          I think giving him a quick wipe or changing his clothes to save furniture is OK at the end of the meal. :)
          What I think is really harmful is the constant wiping, cleaning between bites, or if a child is really sensitive, finding a way to get them clean at the end of the meal that isn’t too aversive… No problem giving them a hand so you don’t have guacamole on your favorite chair!

  9. Anne

    To me there was nothing more adorable than my son with a face covered with pasta sauce or squash or with cheerios stuck to his cheeks. I also loved those hand towel bibs – my mom used to send me them from all the senior center craft fairs she went to. They went right into the washer like a dream. And you’re absolutely right about the table being easier to clean – I’d pull off the tray and drag it right up to the kitchen table once my son got truly messy. Of course it helped that I had a child who also loved being in the tub, so the more baths he got the happier he was.

    • katja

      It is surprising how many people have a problem with how messy eating is for little ones. Thanks for the practical advice! I loved the mess too! Beet juice down the chin is quite a site! I advocate pulling kids up to the table as soon as it is safe. The bath tip is great too. Straight to the bath after a messy meal, or even just the giant kitchen sink.

  10. Dawn

    I’m just starting to introduce solids to my 6 month old. I can’t use any sort of bib or that is all she wants to put in her mouth. I’ve tried three different kinds and it was the same thing. So now I do like you did Katja and just feed her in her onesie and change her after. So far she’s not that interested in actually eating the food so most of it gets smushed between her fingers and rubbed on the high chair tray. It’s such a contrast than when I introduced solids to my older daughter (she’s 5 now). Everything that came near her mouth on a spoon was eagerly eaten up. I can already see how I’m going to have a much more difficult time backing off with feeding for this one. Although, maybe she’s just not ready yet and once she is she’ll take off like gangbusters.