Embrace the Mess: How Messy Mealtimes Support Normal Feeding Development

Posted by Guest Blogger Ashley Thurn, MS, OTR/L on 5th Aug 2019

This wonderful guest post comes to us from Ashley Thurn, MS, OTR/L.


As a mom of two kids under the age of five, I know first-hand how mess making during mealtime can really drive a type-A mama like myself to the brink of insanity.   (Over and over again, every day.)  But as a pediatric occupational therapist, who specializes in sensory related feeding issues and picky eating, I also know that the benefits of letting my kids get messy when they eat, far outweigh the downfalls of messy mealtimes.

I’ve seen firsthand how many type-A moms like myself, delay letting their little ones self-feed during the food-introduction period, to avoid the mess.   The problem with delaying self-feeding and not allowing babies to explore foods with their hands is that it can, in some instances, lead to an interference with normal feeding patterns and can contribute to more selective eating patterns in the long run.

There are many ways that delayed self-feeding can contribute to the development of abnormal feeding and interfere with the development of oral motor skills (the skills that help the mouth, tongue, lips and cheeks work in a coordinated way to mash up and swallow food).

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Embrace the Mess: How Messy Mealtimes Can Support Normal Feeding Development

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Babies Learn through Touch

It might be helpful to first take a look at how babies learn about the world around them within the first year of life.  Babies are naturally driven by their tactile sense and explore the world around them with their sense of touch.  They touch, feel and explore objects within their reach by bringing items that they’ve discovered to their mouths.   This helps them to understand more about their environment.

The fingertips and the lips and tongue just so happen to house more sensory receptors (cells that receive tactile or touch information to the brain to help us to understand what it is and what it feels like) than any other region in the entire human body.

Babies learn about accepting new textures in this very specific order of touch: first their hands, then their mouth (we call this proximal to distal sensory acceptance in the therapy world.)  That is just the progression of tactile sensory exploration, the way that babies learn about the world around them.  Babies (and toddlers too) need to be allowed the opportunity to touch, feel and smell their foods in order to determine if they are willing to try it with their mouths.

I think if we understand that concept, we can appreciate why babies are constantly chewing on and mouthing everything they can possibly get their hands on.  I think we will also understand, then, why it is important to let babies explore different food textures with their hands and mouths.

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Babies Naturally Crave Autonomy

Another important characteristic of babies is that they are naturally driven by a need for autonomy and independence (meaning they want to figure out how things work on their own).  This can describe why sometimes a toddlers very first words are often “no,” “myself” or “me” or “mine.”  Sure, some babies are more passive than others, but for the most part, kids want to do things for themselves.  This is especially important during the critical food introduction period, in my eyes.

It is important to let babies explore foods on their own terms, when they are ready and to not encroach on this innate drive for feeding autonomy.  This matters because feeding autonomy can set a framework for both 1) developing a healthy relationship with food and 2) helping kids tune into their own internal nutritional cues.

The moral of the story here, is that the more that we let our children take the lead around the dinner table, the more comfortable they will feel with food and mealtime.

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Issues With Spoon Feeding

While I have no problem with a feeding purees for a short period of time (1-2 weeks at the most), or helping babies spoon feed with more difficult food items (like soup, for example), I do think that long term spoon feeding of puree’s can encroach on a babies natural drive to explore and learn through their sense of touch and it also takes away a babies innate drive for autonomy.

Often parents choose to spoon feed purees for longer period of time because they fear choking.   The irony in this is that the longer a baby or child goes without learning the concepts of how foods feel and how to go about manipulating, biting, chewing and then swallowing these foods; the more likelihood they will have an actual problem with an over-reactive gag, poor tolerance to different textures and choking.  This is because the more times the gag reflex (a protective mechanism that inhibits aspiration of food being lodged in the airway) is elicited, the quicker the body self-teaches more efficient movement patterns within the mouth.

An example of a more efficient oral motor pattern would be learning how to swipe food from the airway with the tongue and move it into the molar region.

Furthermore, many children who throw up often during mealtime (with no underlying medical causation) have an over-reactive gag-reflex, which has been set in motion due to a lack of experiences with real foods in the first few years of life.

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Getting Messy Helps to Desensitize the Tactile System

Over-protecting and over-sanitizing has taught children that being messy is not okay.  Because many children in this generation have had limited exposure to the natural elements of nature (like sand, mud, etc), they are generally lacking in real life experiences with different textures.

A child who lacks basic experiences with textures on their hands and has never been exposed to messy textures in nature can become over-sensitive to tactile information (these children will cry or scream if they get their hands or face messy or will refuse to walk in the sand or grass.)  Sensory-related diagnosis’ are on the rise more than ever before. We need to teach our children (and retrain ourselves as mothers, too) that being messy is okay and a very crucial part of play and child development.

Babies and kids need to be allowed to get messy and feel their foods with their hands because this important part of sensory play promotes a tolerance to a wider variety of textures.  The more textures they are allowed to explore with their hands (and feet too), the more they can put a name to different textures like “mushy” “crunchy” “lumpy”, etc.  The more we broaden their understanding of different textures, the more likely they will allow these textures into their mouths in the form of new foods.

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Self-feeding Promotes Age Appropriate Hand-eye Coordination + Fine Motor Skills

The last but certainly not least important reason that getting messy benefits babies during feeding is that it enhances the development of both hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.  These hand skills impact a child’s performance in many life-related skills and school.  A few examples of life skills that depend on refined hand-eye coordination are things like dressing, handwriting, shoe tying, utensil use and cutting. The building blocks for hand-eye coordination begin in the hand to mouth exploration phase, which is typical from 6-18 months of age.

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Getting Messy Positively Impacts Older Children too

Because so many children today have had such limited exposure to the naturally messy textures and elements of nature, it is no wonder that many older, school-aged children display signs and symptoms of tactile sensitivity or becoming over-sensitive to tactile information.

These are the children who have a meltdown if a food on their plate is a certain texture they disprove of, become anxious during messy crafts (ex: when glue, paint or markers get on their hands) or need to wash their hands immediately during any messy cooking activity (like rolling dough balls).

These children are showing signs of tactile sensitivity and these signs and symptoms are giving us a signal that their sensory systems need help in this area.

If we can give these older children back the tactile experiences they may have missed out of in younger years, we can be an integral part of the process in helping these children to regulate their sensory systems.  As parents, we can help our older children be able to tolerate a wider variety of textures (which is called desensitization, by the way), and this can translate to more foods being accepted and less anxiety during sensory experiences.

Here’s a few real life sensory experiences you can encourage your older child to enjoy to help desensitize their tactile systems:

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6 Activities to Desensitize + Integrate the Tactile Sensory System

  1. Allowing children to walk barefoot in different natural elements such as sand and wet grass.  Anytime when your child can safely walk barefoot, allow it.
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  2. Making room for regular, extended unstructured time in natural elements.  This can include anything from jumping in puddles to making mud pies to building sand castles at the beach.  You would be surprised at how much older children enjoy these activities too!
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  3. Baking is a great way to expose the hands to different sensory information.  Baking cookies and dough with their hands (rolling cookie dough balls, rolling out dough, using cookie cutters to cut dough) and making rice crispy treats, are all great places to start.
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  4. Making kitchen “mixtures!”  This is one of my favorite activities for older children with sensory challenges.  Start with basic mixtures like yogurt with berries and then get more adventurous as you go, adding in things like granola, bananas, etc.  Pizza, sandwich and salad mixtures are other examples.  Allowing two foods to be “mixed” together is huge for sensory kids.  Getting them involved in the physical process of mixing the foods together helps tremendously.
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  5. Finger painting and shaving cream play is a challenge for tactile sensitive kids, but it can also be really fun!
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  6. The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol is a dry brushing technique, used with children with sensory challenges, that can be implemented at home to provide calming proprioceptive input to the tactile system.  It involves brushing the body with a small surgical brush throughout the day.  Typically an Occupational Therapist, who is trained in this technique, is the best person to train you for at home use of this protocol.

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Ashley Thurn, MS, OTR/L

Ashley is the mom of two littles and a pediatric occupational therapist with a background in sensory integration and pediatric feeding.  She loves to share tips and tricks with parents struggling at mealtime with their picky eaters to help their little ones enjoy a wider variety of foods. She also loves nutrition and cooking healthy, gluten free, kid-friendly meals.  One of her biggest passions is exploring the way that nutrition and environmental factors contribute to the development of neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and Autism and how making simple lifestyle changes can result in symptom improvement and an overall happier, healthier child.  Find her at helpinghandsot.com and @helpinghandsot and the tag #hhfoodtips on Instagram.


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