Infant Feeding Techniques That Promote Good Eating Habits

Posted by

Breanne Haeger, MOT, OTR/L

Time to read

6 minutes

If you’re like most parents, you hope and wonder if your infant will grow up to be a “good eater.” Meaning, they’ll accept many foods, be willing to try new things, and eat the foods your family eats. Here are our top strategies and techniques to help promote these flexible eating habits as your infant becomes a toddler and beyond!

Flavor Variation

Soon-to-be mothers and/or breastfeeding mothers:

This starts early! If you are a soon-to-be or mom who breastfeeds, eating a variety of flavors during pregnancy and after can help expose your baby to new flavors. During the last trimester of pregnancy the foods you eat change the flavor of the amniotic fluid your baby tastes. For moms who breastfeed, the flavor varieties you consume slightly change the flavor of your breast milk, and this helps your baby become used to things tasting different.

For infants transitioning to purees:

Off the shelf baby foods are very consistent. And the most common practice is to start by feeding your baby one flavor per feeding time. To set up your little one for the most success as they grow, we recommend including multiple flavors of puree in one sitting. 2-3 is plenty! So for example: if you are feeding your baby sweet potato and pear puree, you can also mix these both together in different ratios to form a third (more inconsistently flavored) food. 

Another way to include more inherent variety is blending your own purees. (But for some, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do this. And that is perfectly OK.) Blending your own purees creates natural variety, because as we know, sometimes things like fruit are sweeter or more tart. There will be natural variations in flavor and texture if you make your own purees. 

For infants who are baby led weaning or self-feeding:

We recommend offering at least three different foods per meal with different properties. For example: different flavors, textures, shapes, etc. This helps your baby learn how to manipulate and respond to different foods in their hands and mouths. (Of course stay within the foods they are ready and safe for here!)

For more on food/flavor variations read our blog post on food chaining.

Hard Munchables

When your infant is beginning to eat purees, it is recommended that you provide at least one hard munchable each time you provide puree. Hard munchables are very hard foods and the goal is exploration not consumption.These are typically recommended in the size and shape to resemble a large chunky marker (which allows safe imposition further back in their mouth and easy grasping). The most important thing here is that your infant is not able to remove any sizable pieces  (other than mush or maybe very tiny scrapings). This ensures it is a safe and beneficial experience.

When they have a hard munchable, your infant will be able to touch the food, mouth it, taste it, experience sensations that help them develop awareness of their mouth, and develop more mature tongue and oral motor skills. This technique also helps infants to desensitize their gag reflex, as the trigger usually remains more forward on their tongue until they have more desensitizing experiences. So gagging is to be expected with this and is a good thing, just model staying calm and help them to pull the item forward in their mouth. 

Note: Just in case your child is unexpectedly able to remove a chunk of this hard munchable food, you will want to make sure to be closely supervising throughout. 

Examples of hard munchables:

  • Celery sticks
  • Raw carrot sticks
  • Whole dill pickles
  • Dried fruit sticks
  • Jicama sticks

If your child’s struggling with hard munchables, read our blog post on strategies for how to overcome only soft foods.

Spoon or Finger-Feed Instead of Pouch

We know how convenient pouches are once your child is able to eat from them. So (1) It is totally ok to offer pouches sometimes. Andddd it unfortunately isn’t usually the best for their long term oral motor skills. 

Why? Pouches rely on a sucking motion somewhat similar to the bottle or breast. As your child begins to embark on their solid food journey, we really want them learning new oral motor skills. And this comes with new experiences. When babies are fed with a spoon (and/or their hands!), the food is presented towards the front of their mouth. This means their tongue needs to grab that food and bring it either to the side of their mouth or middle of their tongue to chew/mash. So we see more tongue movement variety and more jaw movement variety with spoon/finger-feeding. 

If you are spoon feeding your child, here are some ways you can support their oral motor skills best:

  • Bring the spoon to just inside their lips, not on top of their tongue
  • Wait for your infant to close their lips on the spoon. Then you can remove it by pulling it straight out. (No scraping or dumping.)
  • As they master this, you can start bringing the spoon to their mouth with more variation: to the sides of their mouth, sideways (wider part of bowl touching lips), etc. 
  • Let them use their hands to bring some of the puree to their mouths as well.
  • If they are ready, offer an oral motor toy (e.g., the P teether) or a pre-utensil (e.g., the Gootensil) and encourage them to bring the pre-dipped object into their mouth. 

Get Messy!

Your infant is going to learn so much about foods by getting messy! We encourage you to set aside at least one meal a day where you let your child get as messy as they want with foods. (Tip: Feed them in their diaper and follow with a bath or quick rinse off!) Infants learn first with their hands, so allowing them to really explore will make them more comfortable with a variety of textures both on their hands and in their mouths as they grow!

Low Pressure: Look for permission cues!

Both in infancy and beyond, pressure to eat or take another bite is usually detrimental to long term eating progress. Infants will show you they are interested in another bite by opening their mouths and leaning forward as you approach with the food. If they are turning their heads and closing their mouths tightly, we encourage you to honor these signs. You can give them a little break to let their food settle and try again, but if they are consistently giving you these signs, we’d recommend ending the meal there. And remember, until age 1 it is perfectly ok for little ones to be getting the majority of their calories from breastmilk or formula!

Promoting self-feeding as much as possible

Self-feeding is important for developing autonomy and independence with eating. As your infant is able to finger feed, we recommend giving them the opportunity to do so whenever possible. It promotes their fine motor control, visual motor coordination, understanding of food placement in their mouths, and allows them to learn about self-pacing!

We hope you now have some new ideas, or at least are re-assured that you are helping your baby learn great eating skills. And just as a reminder, none of these can be followed 100% of the time, so give yourself some flexibility and compassion and create a system that is sustainable for you as the busy parent you are!

Reminder: If you are wanting more support with your child’s eating, we offer free occupational therapy and feeding consultations to go over your concerns and see if your child might benefit from therapy! Click here to sign up!

Resources: Some information inspired by the SOS Approach to Feeding course manual.