As a mom of two kids under the age of five, I know firsthand how mess making during mealtime can really drive a type-A mama like myself to the brink of insanity. But as a pediatric occupational therapist, who specializes in sensory related feeding issues and picky eating, I also know that the benefits of letting my kids get messy when they eat far outweigh the downfalls of messy mealtimes.
I've seen firsthand how many type-A moms like myself delay letting their little ones self-feed during the food-introduction period to avoid the mess. The problem with delaying self-feeding and not allowing babies to explore foods with their hands is that it can, in some instances, lead to an interference with normal feeding patterns and can contribute to more selective eating patterns in the long run.
There are many ways that delayed self-feeding can contribute to the development of normal feeding and interfere with the development of oral motor skills (the skills that help the mouth, tongue, lips and cheeks work in a coordinated way to mash up and swallow food).
Babies learn through touch
It might be helpful to first take a look at how babies learn about the world around them within the first year of life. Babies are naturally driven by their tactile sense and explore the world around them with their sense of touch.They touch, feel and explore objects within their reach by bringing items that they've discovered to their mouths. This helps them to understand more about their environment.
The fingertips and the lips and tongue just so happen to house more sensory receptors (cells that receive tactile or touch information to the brain to help us to understand what it is and what it feels like) than any other region in the entire human body. Babies learn about accepting new textures in this very specific order of touch: first their hands, then their mouth (we call this proximal to distal sensory acceptance in the therapy world.)
Babies and toddlers need to be allowed the opportunity to touch, feel and smell their foods in order to determine if they are willing to try it with their mouths.
Babies naturally crave autonomy
Another important characteristic of babies, that is inherent and innate, is that they are naturally driven by a need for autonomy and independence. Put simply: They want to discover how things work on their own. This can describe why sometimes a toddler's very first words are often "no," "myself" or "me" or "mine." Sure, some babies are more passive than others, but for the most part, kids want to do things for themselves. This is especially important during the critical food introduction period.
It is important to let babies explore foods on their own terms, when they are ready and to not encroach on this innate drive for feeding autonomy. This matters because feeding autonomy can set a framework for developing a healthy relationship with food and it helps kids tune into their own internal nutritional cues.
The moral of the story here, is that the more that we let our children take the lead around the dinner table, the more comfortable they will feel with food and mealtime.
Getting messy helps to desensitize the tactile system
Overprotecting and over-sanitizing has taught children that being messy is not okay. A child who lacks basic experiences with textures on their hands and has never been exposed to messy textures in nature can become over-sensitive to tactile information (these children will cry or scream if they get their hands or face messy or will refuse to walk in the sand or grass.)
Sensory-related diagnosis' are on the rise more than ever before. We need to teach our children (and retrain ourselves as mamas, too) that being messy is okay and a very crucial part of play and child development.
Babies and kids need to be allowed to get messy and feel their food with their hands because this important part of sensory play promotes a tolerance to a wider variety of textures. The more textures they are allowed to explore with their hands (and feet too), the more they can put a name to different textures like "mushy" "crunchy" "lumpy", etc. The more we broaden their understanding of different textures, the more likely they will allow these textures into their mouths in the form of new foods.
Self-feeding promotes hand-eye coordination + fine motor skills
The last but certainly not least important reason that getting messy benefits babies during feeding is that it enhances the development of both hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. These hand skills impact a child's performance in many life-related skills and school. A few examples of life skills that depend on refined hand-eye coordination are things like dressing, handwriting, shoe tying, utensil use and cutting. The building blocks for hand-eye coordination begin in the hand to mouth exploration phase, which is typical from 6-18 months of age.This article was originally published on helpinghandsot and it has been republished with permission from the author.