This is a big topic for a blog post, and veers a little away from food play with our hands, but it’s a big concern. It’s a reason kids can be hesitant about new foods and it’s a big reason kids get referred to me for feeding evaluations. “My child doesn’t chew.” I’ve heard this sentence at the beginning of countless evaluations, each child with their individual challenges, differences and reasons for ‘not chewing,’ or holding food until it softens or pocketing it in their cheeks or spitting it out.
Chewing is a skill we learn and refine as our mouths develop. Babies start mouthing or munch chewing (‘up and down’) between 5 and 8 months. and develop a coordinated rotary chewing pattern (‘side to side’ and ’round and round’) between 8 and 14 months. Anything that has affected a child’s mouth development can affect the development of chewing skills, and each child problem solves their own unique way to ‘not chew,’ if it’s easier for them. So, if you have concerns about chewing, I definitely recommend trying to get individualized help to address specific goals and needs.
That said, chewing involves biting off a piece of food, coordinating movements to crush it between our teeth on one side of the mouth, then using our tongue to move it over to our teeth on the other side of the mouth to crush and grind it some more until it’s ready to be swallowed. Below are some ideas to help support these basic, building-block skills of chewing.
1. Practice chewing on the bite surface of teeth. If food isn’t on the bite surfaces of our teeth, even if a child is making good chewing motions, the food won’t get ground up. There are many reasons kids don’t get the food between their teeth, but practice doing just that will help them become more effective chewers.
Try practicing with little bites. I like using dissolvable puffs (like in the activity below). Show how you place them on your bottom teeth and can CRUNCH them between your teeth. Using something crunchy will help give auditory feedback that the crunch has happened both when you do it and when they do it. Doing this in front of a mirror can also be fun and helpful, so kids can see the crunch when they do it and get some visual feedback, too.
You could also use long strips of food that you hold onto and place on the bite surfaces of the teeth. This way you can pull it out if you need to and kids can see their bite marks after a chew or 2. Just be careful with the food you pick because kids can often chomp off pieces when they get that good placement on their teeth!
2. Tongue lateralization (moving the tongue side to side) is a skill we need to chew effectively. In a coordinated rotary chewing pattern, we use our tongue to move food from one side of our mouth to the other as we chew. This requires tongue strength, dexterity and coordination.
I like to model and practice moving food on the tongue from side to side using small dissolvable puffs because they’re easy to see on the tongue, stick to the tongue so they don’t fall off when you exaggerate movements, they dissolve so they don’t usually need to be spit out and they’re tiny so they provide lots of opportunities to practice!
First, show a child how you can move a puff from one side of your mouth to the other by modeling. Exaggerate the motion of moving the puff over to the other side of your mouth and CRUNCH! or CHOMP! the puff with your teeth on the other side. Then have them try. You can take turns and really get into the crunching or chomping!!
3. Sing pacing songs. Songs can help to help to keep a child’s focus on the task of chewing. They also provide a rhythm which can help promote and support the rhythm needed for a coordinated rhythmic chewing pattern.
I like to make up words to songs so the words also teach a child what to do with the food in their mouth and keeps them focused at the task on hand of chewing and eating! Here is a link to a past post with some of my go-to feeding songs.
Have fun chewing and happy food play!