Is your baby over 9 months and still reluctant to put food in their mouth or drink anything other than milk? Are you understandably frustrated and concerned about their nutrient intake, minimal exposure to allergen foods, and lack of interest in food?
What needs to be addressed first is the ‘why’. There are several potential reasons for solids reluctance or refusal, and here are a few.
Why baby maybe uninterested in solids
- Highchair discomfort: Does your baby have feet support? If their legs are dangling, it means that they must work hard to sit, pick up food, put it in their mouth, chew, and swallow. It requires a lot of coordination that they may be struggling with.
- Oral motor skills: If food falls out of their mouth, or it isn’t chewed or swallowed, their oral motor muscles (they allow us to chew and swallow) may need strengthening.
- Sensory processing difficulties: Do they often explore non-food items with their mouth? How do they react when they get wet or dirty?
To rule out any physiological causes, please speak to a paediatrician, speech pathologist, lactation consultant, paediatric dentist, or occupational therapist if you suspect any oral motor or sensory processing difficulties.
Read on for 5 simple strategies you can experiment with to encourage your baby to eat (hint: there are no stickers or rewards!)…
1. It’s all in the timing
If they’re refusing meals because they’re full after their breast or bottle feed, you may need to wait at least an hour or more between milk and solids. From 9 months, you can start to offer solids before milk. Here are some tips on how to balance solids with milk feeds.
2. Ditch the highchair for now
Stick to your usual mealtimes, but relax about the location just for now in case the highchair is uncomfortable and they associate it negatively with food. Some alternatives could be:
- Sit with them on your lap and let them pick up food from your plate
- Have picnics outdoors or on the floor
- Try them on a booster seat on a dining chair so that they’re sitting at the table like the rest of the family
3. Encourage them to play with their food
This one might come as a surprise to some parents, but food should be fun. Place a dollop of yoghurt or some other puree in front of them just to play with at mealtimes. Forget about utensils and even plates for now if you can. Embrace the mess and allow them some time to touch their food, smear it all over the table, rub it through their hair, and watch it as it falls to the floor.
What we want is a baby that associates mealtimes with enjoyment. Deep breaths…this stage is worth it!
You can also leave wiping their hands and face with a soft wet face washer until the end of the meal. Explain to them what you’re doing as you clean them up.
5. Keep the atmosphere and language positive
If your bub pull faces, rather than laughing or saying, ‘oh you don’t like it’, just smile, stay calm, and try again. As excited as you are, there’s no need to make a big deal of it or even make eating the goal. If they play with the food, take a lick, or a taste before spitting it out, they’re all important achievements.
Are they throwing food? Offer small amounts so you don’t become frustrated about food waste, and read Why is my baby throwing food?
If they’re getting upset at the table, there’s no need to insist they stay there. You could put them on your lap while you finish your food, or put them down if they’re unhappy. We want to keep mealtimes positive.
There’s no need to ask for ‘just one bite’, or use distraction to feed them, or plead with them. The only focus on the food can be when you’re eating it, talking nonchalantly about the colours, whether it’s crispy, or delicious etc.
5. Messy play and food play away from the table
Giving your little one plenty of opportunities for messy play is important for brain development. When they experience new textures, this vast amount of sensory input helps their brain get accustomed to different sensations. This then lays the groundwork for eating a variety of textures. It also helps to build sleep pressure – bonus! Read all about the importance for messy play for babies starting solids.
Find some time each day when they’re not tired or hungry. Mornings might work best, and you could have the necessary materials ready to go to save time. Schedule activities ahead of time to make life easier.
You could set up some activities on a plastic mat, outside on a picnic blanket, or even in an empty bath (if you’re particularly nervous about mess). Use a large bucket or baking tray.
Get involved too, and tell yourself that it can all be cleaned up at the end, and that it’s benefiting your baby.
Here are some ideas:
- Give them the fruit bowl to explore
- Leftover spaghetti
- Water play
- Sand play
- Taste-safe finger paint or playdough (here is a recipe)
- Sensory bags/bottles
- Play in a tub of flour, oats, or ground up cereal
- Jelly play
- Play in the mud or dirt