Writing a post on chewing last week felt like a detour away from food play and into the realm of oral motor skills, but chewing is a big way we explore food. Which got me thinking that I should write a post about ways we play with food in our mouths. The ultimate goal of food play (besides having fun!) is to cross the bridge from being comfortable touching something with our hands to eating it and there’s still more exploration to be done in our mouths before we’re ready to swallow a bite.
We can think about the ways we explore foods with our mouth by working from the front of the mouth to the back. It feels a lot safer to test a hot cup of tea on your lips, maybe even just test the steam in front of your lips, before taking a gulp and testing it with the back of your tongue. It’s the same with every food we’re unsure about for any reason. We test and taste with the front of our mouth and continue the exploration as we work our way back
As we move into the mouth, it’s important to remember that when working in or around a child’s mouth, the child needs to be in charge. Think about someone trying to put something into your mouth (like at the dentist). Even when you know it’s safe, there’s an amount of tensing and getting ready for it. But you’re probably a lot less tense when you put something in your own mouth, like your toothbrush or your fork. I also often liken this to the idea that “you can’t tickle yourself” because you know what’s coming.
However it makes sense to you, comfort generally evolves much faster when you let a child bring foods to their own mouths. Often, just putting a spoon that’s being refused in a toddler’s hand is all they need to bring it to their own mouth and open for a bite (though wouldn’t we be so lucky if that was always the case!).
Here are some ideas of ways to play from the front of the mouth to the back:
Lips: Our lips test the temperature, texture, and some gross sensations of foods (like the spiciness of peppers or bubbles in soda). Playing games where we kiss foods and put them down can be a gentle way to start bringing a new food to the mouth. I like to do this with pretend play, for example, kissing all of the carrots in a bowl good night, or pretending to put on ‘carrot-stick chap-stick’.
Front Teeth: When we’re not sure about something we test it, usually with a small touch. With our fingers we touch or poke with our pointer finger and when we test a bite we’re not sure about we often use just our teeth. This allows us to test the texture and a bit of taste without touching it much with our lips or tongue. A great way to practice testing foods with our teeth and getting used to different textures and small tastes is by making bite marks. Practice making bite marks in foods like apple slices, carrot sticks, toast, then admire them with your child and show them what their teeth can do!
Tongue Tip: We taste and test temperature and texture with the tip of our tongue. You can go straight to tasting foods with the tip of tongue by licking them directly or you can lick food off of your lips. You could dab any sticky food like hummus, peanut butter or mashed potatoes onto your lips and show your child how to lick it off. Or, if you want to explore cold foods, you could put on popsicle ‘chapstick’ and taste it from your lips. You can taste virtually any food this way, so have fun and get creative!
Mid-Mouth: When we chew foods we crush them into smaller pieces and explore those pieces as we move them side to side with the tongue. Check out last week’s post on chewing for more fun!
Back Of Mouth: We don’t play with food at the back of the mouth. For safety reasons, as well as, at this point most of the exploration has already happened. Our swallow reflex is triggered when the tongue pushes food back over the back of our tongue, so once food has reached this point in the mouth it’s usually getting swallowed (or moved forward to be spit out, or be chewed some more).
Enjoy and happy food play!