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Learning how to bite food

The skill of biting food is required for independent eating and is crucial for the proper development of speech. To adults this skill seems to be obvious, however, the baby must learn it. You will find out from our article how to help your baby learn how to bite food and why you should focus on it.
Edited by LOVI, specialist consultation by speech and language therapist Aleksandra Łada, M.D., PhD, specialist in feeding and communication development disorders in young children | 24 June 2015
Aleksandra Łada M.D. PhD
speech and language therapist

Before discussing how to teach your baby to bite food it should be pointed out that it is a process.  However, the biting function in its strict sense should not be associated with the period of infancy. The child learns how to bite food effectively at about 2 years of age.

Biting off, biting and chewing food

These are various functions in the process of fractioning food.

Biting off food is intended to separate a piece of food. Biting is the first lateral function (side biting  – using molars), which leads to transformation of the solid piece of food into a masticated bolus that can be swallowed. We bite only those foods which we cannot grind with the tongue against the hard palate – this is how small children cope with it at the beginning. Chewing is the most difficult, except for the function of speech, function in the oral apparatus. It requires the highest muscle co-ordination and the longest time of food processing. Chewing is reserved only for those products the biting of which is not enough (e.g., meat,  cold cuts).

We should remember that the individual sensorimotor maturity of the child with respect to these functions is of vital importance. It depends on individual factors, baby’s feeding history and diet. It is worth actively participating in your child’s learning these skills, suggesting the activities discussed below, encouraging, but not forcing it to do them, as we do not want to cause any anxiety or fear in the baby, particularly of choking, or emotional trauma. You need to be patient and should not rush this process.

Biting food and speech development

Speech development is a complicated matter. It requires hearing, understanding and acquiring words. Next, the child needs to demonstrate the skill of speech, that is, say certain sounds that will be understood as human speech. It needs to correctly, which often is very complex, use its speech organs to generate an adequate, planned sequence of sounds. Firstly, suckling breast milk from the breast by the infant, involving more than 40 muscles (including the tongue, lips, jaw and cheeks), followed by learning how to chew and bite food helps in exercising these organs.

Effective biting involves the following elements of the mouth -  gums, teeth, tongue, upper and lower jaw bones. These are the same organs the proper functioning of which is required for the proper articulation of sounds, and the impaired development of which contributes to speech impediments and malocclusion. The entire muscle complex of the mouth is involved in biting and chewing food, which is an excellent speech development exercise.  That is why, when teaching your baby how to bite and chew food we directly support its development of speech.

What, then, is the biggest difficulty in the function of biting off, biting and chewing food?

Co-ordination! Those muscles need to work in a synchronized manner, efficient, and moreover, the sequence of their operation should be long enough so that the texture and consistency of food is transformed (from solid to bolus state), and thus can be safely swallowed.

When to start

Biting food is another step in the learning of skills of eating food. Without learning how to swallow foods, move them in the mouth, safe eating of food, including biting is not possible.

Therefore, the time when your start expanding your baby’s diet, that is the time when you start begin feeding other foods than milk to your baby, can be considered as the beginning of the preliminary learning of biting. According to

the latest feeding regime foods with the consistency of smooth purée should be fed to babies when they are 5 to 6 months old. Therefore, we begin preparing the baby to learn the adult way of eating.

The following are the first skills that a baby acquires during the eating training following the expansion of its diet:

  • it learns to move food around its mouth using its tongue;

  • acquires greater skill in swallowing liquid / food fed differently than from the breast or bottle (teaspoon, drinking cup) – that is, it gradually adapts to the so-called "mature swallowing” pattern (as opposed to ”infantile swallowing” pattern – required during the suckling stage);

  • acquires the skill of getting food from a spoon;

  • recognizes and accepts various food consistencies and textures;

  • recognizes and accepts various flavours;

  • learns gum-chewing and crushing movements (co-ordinated sequences of movements of the temporomandibular joints).

Getting food from a spoon – 5-6 month old baby – first steps in expanding baby’s diet

Put a small amount of food on a spoon that should be small, firm, narrow and not to deep. We show it to the baby and move it closer to its mouth. When the baby sees the spoon it usually opens its mouth.  If it does not open them, you can gently touch its upper lip. We put the spoon's bowl with its content into the baby's mouth. If its mouth remains open, and the upper lip does not gather the food from the spoon, you can lightly press the middle of the tongue with the spoon, which will result in closing its mouth. If the baby has firmly tightened its lips on the spoon, or bitten it with its gums, you need to wait until it has loosened its grip and take the spoon out from its mouth. 

Spoon feeding is an important element of teaching your baby how to eat. This activity strengthens the circular muscles of the mouth and teaches the baby how to correctly use the tongue. We use a spoon to feed foods in the form of mash, mousse or cream, with which you teach your baby about foods other than those of liquid consistency. Eating food in such form requires that the tongue and other mouth muscles work properly to effectively and safely transport the food into the oesophagus.

Drinking from a cup

This is another skill that will make it easier for your baby to bit food. Drinking from an open cup develops the efficient operation of the mouth muscles - both lips, cheeks and other facial muscles are working to keep the gap between the cup and lips sealed, dispense the liquid to allow only a small amount of it to enter the mouth, so that the baby does not choke. Additionally, which is also of great importance, drinking from an open cup trains the baby to control its swallowing and breathing, and represents an important element of learning self-control. If your baby is choking while drinking from an open cup, you first can use a LOVI 360° cup, from which your baby will get liquid as from a cup, but it can control the flow of liquid by its suckling force.

Flakes and cooked vegetables

Your baby does not need the full set of teeth in its mouth to start learning how to bite food. It will cope perfectly using its gums. Initially, it will grind food with the tongue against the hard palate. This will be fairly soon followed by chewing and crushing movements.

For this to happen, however, the baby needs to be provided with opportunities to build on such experiences. Therefore, it is worth providing your baby with such opportunities once you have put it on a more extended diet. It is very good to start with cornflakes that dissolve in the mouth and with which the risk of baby choking is minimal. You can then give your baby bits of cooked vegetables, such as broccoli, carrot, or fruit, such as soft pear, for example, which the baby will easily be able to crush with its gums. Obviously, when eating the baby should always be under a watchful care of an adult.

Cut, chop, mash  

When your baby is approximately 7 – 8 months of age, and the learning how to spoon feed has been completed with success, you should stop mixing and grinding all foods.

It is time to put foods on the baby’s plate, which it can bite by itself. Soups or stews should have small, soft bits of vegetables. Meat should be finely chopped due to its fibrous structure. If the baby can sit by itself, you can give it vegetables that have been cooked until tender, cut into long pieces, peeled fruit.

Opportunities for biting off food

Biting also involves biting off, that is the use of incisors to separate a piece of food. The said long pieces of fruit and cooked vegetables as well as cornflakes, soft cakes, such as biscuits, will be perfect.

Seek advice from a speech and language therapist, if:
  • your baby often chokes when swallowing food;

  • after placing bits of food into its mouth it starts gagging;

  • your child breathes through the open mouth,

  • very often it has its mouth open and tongue sticking outside.

For the proper development of occlusion and speech it is important that the baby has acquired the correct habit of biting off food, that is, using the incisors rather than the lateral teeth.

Let your baby be independent

You most likely have noticed that since you put your baby on a more extended diet it shows a keen interest in what food it has on the plate and in the bowl. Well, that is perfect! Let it touch, explore and taste it. Satisfying your baby's curiosity, including stimulating it with new experiences, will help your baby in learning how to eat by itself, including biting food. As a result, more skills will come quite naturally and quickly. Obviously, there will be a lot of mess, but also fun, laughter and pride, therefore you need to be attentive and patient.

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