Eating isn’t easy for young children – it’s a complex learned skill
If I told you that the process of eating is quite difficult, you’d probably disagree.
Understandably so, because it's something you've been doing it for a very long
time and it’s very much second nature.
We start our journey with solids usually at around four to six months of age. At this stage, we're usually learning to sit up – we may have mastered it, maybe not. Until now, our mouth has only needed to do one thing and that's a sucking motion to obtain nourishment. We are placed in a chair. We're still a little wobbly. We then see mum or dad with a blob of something on a spoon and they start aiming it towards our mouth. Some gets in. It tastes different, it’s gritty, our brain and mouth doesn’t quite know what to do with it, and our tongue doesn’t know how or where to push it. We end up with most of it on us, rather than in us.
While dealing with this new experience. We are also trying to keep ourselves upright. Our legs aren't long enough to reach a footrest (not that many highchairs have one anyway), so unless we're very well supported, we have to keep adjusting our core muscles to feel stable. Our breathing isn’t smooth, steady and relaxed because we’re focused on engaging other muscles to not fall forward or sideways. And because our breathing isn't relaxed, we can't quite feel relaxed either.
Argh, that spoon again. How can we chew and coordinate swallowing with breathing if we’re not even doing that effortlessly? Then mum or dad has the nerve to try on this aeroplane business. No, just no! Then they're scraping our face with the spoon, trying to put the same blob back in. We tried that, didn’t work! Now we’re over it. We feel irritated and interest and hunger has gone. We’re not happy – we're crying. Now mum/dad’s not happy with our behaviour.
Once we’re finally used to something, and we think we’ve mastered it, we’re introduced to new tastes, smells, textures, and/or foods with varying levels of hardness. We need to work out how to get our tongue and mouth manipulating, crushing and moving the food into a bolus (ball of food) and to just the right place for swallowing. Because it's tricky, we gag a fair bit. We then might not like that food for a while because it made us feel uncomfortable. Then that food smelt a little funny and it tasted bitter. How do we know we’re not being poisoned? We didn’t see you eating it, so it must be poison. Yep, poison. We’ll just play with it instead. Maybe throw it on the floor or feed it to the dog.
As this example demonstrates, the practise of eating requires a lot of input and coordination from several parts of the body. We need to be feeling stable and coordinate our mouth, tongue and breathing for it to happen well. Trust is another factor. Parents or carers need to be respectful of their child’s cues and avoid being pushy as this can lead to mealtimes being seen as unenjoyable or a chore-like. Turning their head or crying is a very strong indication to stop and try later. And being a good role model shows your child that the foods being given are both safe and enjoyable.
We also need to be mindful that it takes quite a bit of time to master the life-long skill of eating. Food refusal, nibbling and spitting food out, mess, playing with food and wastage (as much as it kills many of us inside) are all normal parts of raising confident and competent eaters. Unlike breastmilk or formula which is slightly sweet, vegetables in particular contain naturally-occurring bitter compounds that we need to become accustomed to, so don't give up offering them. Repeat exposure to a wide variety of foods is what makes kids adventurous eaters.
Always good to remember the saying that food before one is just for fun.
By Kate Curtis, BHSc Nutritionist