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Helping children learn to eat, understanding the process

Understanding how children learn to eat

When we eat, we never stop to think about the process that has led to us being able to eat. We take it for granted. But what has a baby had to learn in order to be able to chew and eat food? Let us look at the learning process behind one of our most basic functions.

Eating requires all our sensory systems: tactile, visual, olfactory, gustatory, and auditory. Being able to eat requires control in areas such as sitting, which takes strength and balance.

To help set children up for success with eating, it is important to work at the level of their development, offering foods that they are ready for, being patient and getting the eating environment right.


From birth to around five months there is a period of what is known as generalised mouthing. This is when babies suck on their fists, fingers and thumbs. This must be actively encouraged. If it is not happening by itself, adults need to gently hold the baby’s elbow to guide their hand towards their mouth so that this feels natural for them.

As babies get older they will reach for other objects rather than just their hands to explore their mouths. This should also be encouraged. This is called discriminative mouthing. This is when appropriate “toys” are needed to allow babies to explore their mouths. This stage begins the oral sensory experience. Babies begin to understand how objects feel, and how they are different.

Both these stages are vital to allow babies to develop sensory dicrimination that will be used for food manipulation and for speech.

The Newborn

The level of oral motor skills that a baby has means that everything works together. The jaw and tongue work as one unit. New born babies up to the age of four months automatically swallow and suckle. This is a reflex that they cannot control - it happens naturally.

They are able to move their tongue in and out of their mouths. They can move liquid to the back of the mouth, creating a channel for the liquid.

Another reflex is rooting when a baby turns their head, opens their mouth towards the food source be it breast or bottle.

Four Months

After four months, sucking is no longer a reflex, it is an intentional act. Baby is now in control.

If a baby has issues feeding at this stage, there might be an issue that needs some help. This is when problems might show themselves. This is a vital age to support discriminative feeding, allowing babies to explore their mouths. Babies may reach for their caregivers hand. This should be allowed and encouraged.

The jaw and the tongue are still working as one unit, however up and down munching has started to happen.

Reflexes start to disappear- the rooting reflex goes and the gag reflex lessens.

Seven to Nine Months

The tongue and jaw start to move separately. The tongue is able to move up and down as well as in and out. The jaw is able to be moved diagonally in order to chew food.

Baby will recognise if a spoon is offered and their mouth will open ready to accept food.

Tongue Lateralization happens. This is where food is moved from one side of the mouth to the other.

Food textures are recognised and a mature chewing pattern develops.

Through discriminative mouthing babies use their tongues to discover the food in their mouths. They can tell if it is a puree they can just swallow, or if it is a lump that they need to move from side to side in their mouth and chew.

It is important at this stage to encourage babies to explore their mouths with different textures.

Twelve Months

From around their first birthday, babies can drink through a straw, suck, swallow and take a breath while drinking.

Babies are able to feed themselves and this needs to be encouraged. Children need to play with their food. Lots of messy play is good!

Around this time, the tongue needs to learn to elevate in the mouth. It is important that bottles or cups with teats are discouraged past the age of one. These press the tongue down and prevent it lifting properly.

Age Two and Beyond

Children learn to close their mouths when eating.

Fear of new food is possible from this age, a phase that can last until age six.

Children have often got a good vocabulary by this age. They have found a voice. They have now got food preferences and they are able to say “no” to foods they don’t want to eat.

It is important that their voice is listened to.

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