Sensory Play: “Doesn’t she put that in her mouth?”

I post a lot of pictures to my Facebook page of Stella engaging in sensory play.  I try to offer some form of sensory play every day (it doesn’t always happen though) and I enjoy sharing what we do to give other parents ideas.  In almost every picture’s comment section, you’ll find someone asking a variation of, “Doesn’t she put that in her mouth?” or “How do you keep her from eating that?”  It’s a common question and a valid concern, so I decided to go ahead and blog about it.

Soapy, sudsy water and a whisk (7 months).

Soapy water and a whisk (7.5 months).

To answer the question, yes, Stella puts things in her mouth.  In fact, she puts almost anything into her mouth that she can get her little hands on!  Mouthing is a typical (and good!) baby behavior because it is one of the important ways they learn about their world.  Putting objects in her mouth helps a baby discover obvious things, like taste and texture, but also not-so-obvious things, like size and shape.

Because mouthing is an important part of babyhood, and because I believe it’s important to avoid constantly telling a baby, “no,” I don’t offer a lot of things to Stella that I’m not comfortable with her putting in her mouth.  That being said, my comfort level may be different than yours…and that’s okay!  I’m comfortable with her putting most of our sensory items into her mouth.  Some of these things include:

-Play dough (I make ours, so I know exactly what’s in it)

Dry rice

-Salt (to a certain point, anyway)

-Flour

-Paper/cardboard (until it becomes soggy and could break off in her mouth)

I haven’t always been comfortable with babies putting things in their mouths.  Even after learning about the importance of letting babies explore with their mouths, it took at least a year of working with babies every day at an early learning center for me to actually feel comfortable with it.

How did I become okay with it?

I had to be mindful of my feelings and question whether I was redirecting a child from putting something in their mouth because it was actually a safety issue or simply because I didn’t want them to (for any number of arbitrary, often unnecessary reasons).  I did this by pausing before I said, “That’s just for your hands,” and asking myself, “Why not?”  (Asking yourself, “Why not?” before reacting to something your child is doing can be a powerful tool in lots of areas, but more on that in another post.) If I couldn’t think of a really good and legitimate answer to “Why not?” then I didn’t redirect.  Instead, I just went with it.  “I bet that play dough tastes really salty.”  “How does that flour feel in your mouth?” “That rice is probably kind of hard, huh?”

Playing with dyed rice and stacking rings (7.5 months)

Playing with dyed rice and stacking rings (7 months)

Just because I allow Stella to explore things with her mouth, doesn’t mean I would let her eat a handful of salt, rice, play dough, etc.  I’ve offered sensory experiences since she was a tiny infant — I think we were playing with rice by the time she was three months old (I didn’t let her put sensory items in her mouth until after she started solid food at six months though), so she has had a lot of exposure to it.  Often, she will put something in her mouth a few times and then she’s satisfied (because I let her actually have the experience) and will just use her hands.

Rice play at 4.5 months. Feet don't have to be excluded from sensory play!

Rice play at 4.5 months. Feet don’t have to be excluded from sensory play!

Even though I feel comfortable with Stella exploring a lot of things with her mouth, there are obviously some things I can’t allow for safety reasons (mostly choking hazards) — water beads, dry beans, rocks, etc.  In cases like these, I just do lots (and lots, and lots, and lots) of modeling and redirecting when necessary — “These are just for your hands.”  “Keep them out of your mouth.”  “Look how we can…(squeeze these water beads, drop these rocks, scoop these beans, etc.).”  It takes a lot of patience.  I also don’t offer these types of sensory experiences unless I am going to be right beside her the entire time to help her keep them out of her mouth.  Not cleaning up the kitchen with her on the floor nearby.  Not visiting with a friend.   Not checking Facebook.  RIGHT BESIDE HER and actively engaged, making sure it’s not going in her mouth.

Stella exploring water beads.

Stella exploring water beads.

If you want to offer sensory experiences and want to allow your child to mouth things, but aren’t entirely comfortable with it yet, you could start out by acknowledging what they’re doing — “You’re putting the play dough in your mouth.  I bet that tastes salty.” — and then try to gently redirect — “I’m going to roll my play dough into a ball.  Oh, that’s neat!  Now I’m going to squish it!  Do you want to try!?”  This way, you’re not denying them their experience or telling them, “no,” but you’re also attempting to get them engaged in a way you’re more comfortable with.

It can take a lot of exposures to sensory play before a baby or toddler will avoid putting the objects in their mouth and actually use her hands to play with it instead, but it’s so worth it!  Remember, they can’t learn if they don’t ever have the opportunity!

So, is your jaw still dropped from reading that I let my 8-month old put play dough in her mouth?  It’s okay; I’m used to people thinking I’m a little crazy when it comes to babies 🙂 A few years ago, I would have thought the same thing!  Just give it a try — it may surprise you how quickly your baby can learn!

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Adventures in Baby-led Solids

Have you heard of baby-led solids?  Basically, it means skipping purées and baby cereals and moving straight into “real” foods cut into large chunks that baby can easily grasp and gnaw on.  Putting food into the baby’s mouth for them (i.e. spoon feeding) is avoided.  The thought behind it is that a baby isn’t ready for food until she can put it into her mouth herself.  It puts Stella in charge of whether she eats or not, and how much.

Stella (6.5 months here) eating slices of avocado and acorn squash.  Other common foods we frequently offer her are large slices of pear, half of a banana, baked sweet potato fries, strips of bread, and round-sliced squash and zucchini.

Stella (6 months here) eating slices of avocado and acorn squash. Other common foods we frequently offer her are large slices of pear, half of a banana, baked sweet potato fries, strips of bread, and round-sliced squash and zucchini.

My plan had always been to make my own baby food purées and I had lots of yummy combination ideas I wanted to try out!  But, after researching baby-led solids, I changed my mind about purées and decided that doing a baby-led approach is what would be best for Stella.  Here are a few reasons why we enjoy this approach:

1. Stella is in control of what goes into her mouth.

2. I feel more comfortable with her learning to chew and maneuver food while her gag reflex is still closer to the front of her mouth.  The gag reflex is what protects us from choking and it moves further back on the tongue as a baby grows.

3. We believe that “food before one is just for fun.”  WHO, AAP, CDC, and probably other organizations that I don’t know of, recommend that baby’s primary nutrition through the first year of life is breast milk.  Right now, giving food to Stella serves only as an introduction to various flavors, smells, and textures of food….not nutrition.  By letting her feed herself, I can be sure I’m not making her eat too much of the “fun” stuff (not a lot of the food actually makes it into her mouth!) and that her main source of nutrition is still breast milk.  I can also feel confident that she is gaining experience with and understanding of real food.

4.  It’s fun!  We love watching Stella figure out new foods that we introduce to her and she always gets excited about eating.  It has also been exciting to watch her progress.  She started out by mostly squishing, poking at, and smearing the food around her tray, but as she has gained more experience and watched us eat, she now actually puts the food in her mouth intentionally.

5.  It’s less work.  I would be lying if I told you this wasn’t a motivator for us to do baby-led solids!  We eat lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean meats, so we almost always have something with our meal that Stella can have, too.  I don’t have to prepare something different for her than what I’m already preparing for us.

When we don't have something with our meal that Stella can have, we always have bananas to fall back on!  Bananas are a super easy item to take for her if we're going to be out during a meal time.

When we don’t have something with our meal that Stella can have, we always have bananas to fall back on! Bananas are a super easy item to take for her if we’re going to be out during a meal time, also.

So, are there any drawbacks?  Well, let’s face it…handing your baby half of a banana, a couple of slices of avocado, or a pear doesn’t always end without a mess.  Actually, it never does 🙂  Baby-led solids is MESSY and, understandably, that can be enough reason for some parents to choose a different approach.  I don’t mind the mess, because I believe that exploring the textures of food (i.e. getting messy!) is an important part of the process of learning about food.  But, if the idea of wiping banana out of your baby’s hair and ears and armpits (and, and, and…), then, baby-led solids probably isn’t for you.  It’s not always that messy, but it definitely can be.

See?  Messy.

See? Messy. The bibs we use have a pocket at the bottom to catch dropped food. It helps a lot!

What about choking!?  This is the most common question people ask me when I tell them about baby-led solids.  I worry about it, too (then again, I worry about everything), but I worry less about it now than I did in the beginning.  It’s important to understand that gagging is different from choking.  Gagging is good.  Choking is bad.  Like I mentioned earlier, gagging is what protects us from choking on our food, so if a baby is gagging, it means she is working through it.  If a baby is choking, she will not be able to make noise and may start to turn blue.  Stella has gagged on her food several times (and, yes, I was scared and started to take action before realizing she was working through it on her own), but she has never actually choked on anything.

This article about baby-led solids has really great information about why introducing food in this manner isn’t a cause for increased concern of choking (see the section labeled “Won’t he choke?”).  I would recommend reading the entire article if you’re considering trying the approach. You should also discuss it with your baby’s doctor.

Stella (8 months) having fun during her first experience with whole-wheat spaghetti noodles!  (Poor picture quality from my phone...)

Stella (8 months) having fun during her first experience with whole-wheat spaghetti noodles! (Poor picture quality from my phone…)

I don’t follow baby-led solids as whole-heartedly as some parents do.  For example, once in a while, I will give Stella bites of food off of my spoon or give her a piece of food with my fingers, but I always let her come to the food rather than putting the food into her mouth myself. For the most part, we let her feed herself.

This is not an “all or nothing” approach.  You can adapt it to work for your family.  If the idea of a mess makes you squirm or you’re concerned about choking but are still interested in baby-led solids, then I would recommend just starting out with something that’s within your comfort zone.  If choking is your worry, then an overripe banana is a good option.  If the potential mess is holding you back, then try baked sweet potato fries.

We don't follow the approach religiously.  Stella eats from my spoon sometimes.

We don’t follow the approach religiously. Stella eats from my spoon sometimes.

Understandably, not all parents are comfortable with a baby-led approach to solids.  What do you think about it?  Is it something you would try?