You've started introducing solid food to your baby with much excitement. But then to your discouragement, your baby seems disinterested in food and doesn’t even want to touch the food.
One of the ways you can help encourage your baby to try new foods and build confidence and the skills necessary to self-feed is to incorporate messy play! Your child’s ability to engage in messy play will be highly correlated with their ability to tolerate different textures in their hands and therefore their mouth.
If your baby is 4-6 months old, then check out these sensory play ideas.
If you are going to ask your child to get messy, especially a child who is reluctant to get dirty, you as the parent must model this behavior! That means yes, you, the parent, need to get your own hands messy. Have fun with it and embrace the mess! (And after you have gone to all this work to let them get messy, please don’t wipe it off immediately. Let them stay messy for a bit.)
Embrace the mess!
Messy play or what some people would call “sensory play” has many benefits other than seeing how oatmeal looks on your walls. Messy play is where babies learn how to manipulate, squish, grab and splat a variety of textures.
As much as it may look like your baby is just making a mess, play and discovery is their FULL TIME JOB. Messy play is where they learn that it is ok to have food in all the nooks and crannies of their hands, face and anywhere else that is not sufficiently covered. (Honestly my favorite way to do this with my babies was in nothing but their diaper).
Exploring food textures with hands provides amazing tactile experience to your baby's fingers, hands, and palms.
All this mess making will eventually pay off when it comes time to actually consume food. Babies have to be able to feel the texture of something between their fingers, on their cheeks and quite possibly in their neck rolls just for good measure before they are willing to actually put it in their mouth.
Think about the different textures and consistencies that are in the foods adults eat on any given day. They range from liquid to mushy to crunchy to chewy to flat out hard like the crust of a freshly baked sourdough loaf. That doesn’t even include things of different temperature or salty, sweet or savory.
Here are all the textures of food you can introduce to your baby as soon as they're ready to start solids, usually around 6 months. Unsure if your baby is developmentally ready to start solids? Sign up below!
Promoting play with food
So in the early months of self feeding and food exploration, rather than offering food just during mealtimes (which may feel frantic and stressful), try inviting various textured foods to playtimes. For example, add cooked rice, oatmeal, spaghetti, etc. to a large bin or pot.
Use applesauce, yogurt, thinned out peanut butter, etc., for finger painting. Let your baby have FUN!
Since one meal is plenty when first starting solids, this will give your baby more opportunity to play with and explore food without any expectation that food actually gets into their mouth. When doing baby led weaning, not much will actually get consumed during those first days and weeks even. And that's ok! It's normal and to be expected because learning to self-feed is HARD WORK and takes practice.
Creating a no pressure, stress-free environment and keeping your expectations in check are SO important in encouraging your baby to eat. If you're tense, your baby will surely pick up on that energy.
If you allow your baby to GET MESSY and have fun exploring, they're more likely to try and enjoy new foods. They will also get plenty of opportunities to practice their fine and gross motor skills necessary for self-feeding.
So if you're stressed out and worried that your baby isn't taking to solids right away, first know that you are not alone! It is normal and to be expected. Instead of giving up on doing baby led weaning entirely, I want to encourage you to shift your mindset.
Do focus on the skills of eating NOT consumption during these early months of weaning. And the rest will start to fall into place. Just wait and see ;).
Other fun taste safe recipes
For the older babies, there are also a plethora of taste safe recipes you can use to promote play with different textures.
Also please remember just because they are taste safe, does not mean your baby can/should eat them. It just means that if they get some into their mouth, it’s not a big deal. Please supervise appropriately.
A word of encouragement
If I can provide a wee bit more of encouragement for you to willingly dive into the messy play… This messy play in the beginning months can set babies up for a childhood being open to exploration of their environment which only helps develop cognitive, fine and gross motor skills. These skills build and build which can have significant impact in their education with regards to handwriting, sitting tolerance and attention to a task.
So let them get messy! I know it can be really.really challenging and painful to embrace the mess (spoken by an OCD mom), but it truly will go a LONG way in helping your baby learn to self-feed and ENJOY eating. Try to have fun exploring and making memories together with your baby!