Moving on to new solid foods is an exciting time for children. They are getting to experience new flavors and textures; it’s a whole different world now! As children learn how to eat new foods, food stuffing and pocketing are common behaviors that may occur.
Pocketing food is when a child holds food in their mouth for an extended amount of time without swallowing it. When children pocket food, they usually hold the food inside of one of their cheeks, against the roof of their mouth, or at the front of their mouth. These behaviors interfere with a child’s ability to safely and successfully chew and swallow food.
There are a few reasons why a baby or toddler might pocket food or hold food in their mouth without swallowing, including sensory processing difficulties, oral motor skill level, and discomfort.
Sometimes, children will take a bite and realize they don’t like the texture of it. Rather than spitting it out, some children will hold onto it through pocketing. Other times, children may be unsure where the food is in their mouth. If a child’s oral sensory sensations aren’t sending the right signals to the brain, they may not even realize it’s there! Pocketing food can feel good to some children. Pocketing of food puts pressure on a child’s tongue, cheek, or gums and it may be soothing.
Oral Motor Skills
Oral motor skills, unlike sensory issues, have everything to do with the tone and coordination of the muscles inside our mouth. That means, how our jaws move to help with chewing, how our tongues move to help with controlling the food and swallowing, as well as keeping our lips closed to be able to chew without food falling out! Oral motor weakness can lead to food not moving through the mouth properly and decreased ability to remove food that’s caught in a pocket of their mouth.
As a coping mechanism, some kids will hold onto food because it hurts to swallow. This could begin because of a common sore throat, swollen tonsils, or chronic reflux. Identifying and treating the cause of the discomfort can help lead to more successful feeding.
No matter the cause of the pocketing, there are some steps you can take at home to help your child! Here are a couple -
How you can help at home
Limit the amount
If you’re feeding a baby or young toddler, try giving them a few pieces of food at a time so that it’s easy to manage. For older kids, try keeping the serving size smaller, and cut food into smaller pieces. Providing the child with less food to chew and swallow will decrease the chance that it will get pocketed.
Take a Drink
Encouraging your child to take a sip of their drink once they finish chewing can help decrease pocketing since the liquids will help wash the food down. If possible, an open cup is preferred. Drinking from an open cup helps to flood the mouth with liquid and move the pocketed food better than a straw or sippy cup.
Overstuffing (food stuffing)
Overstuffing is another common feeding behavior, especially as children begin to explore new foods. Children are beginning to discover the size of their mouths and how much food they can chew at one time. Although a common occurrence, this stuffing behavior can quickly become dangerous and can also be an indicator of some other difficulties.
Decreased Oral Awareness
Overstuffing often occurs due to decreased oral awareness. This means that the ability to understand and feel food in and around the mouth is not completely developed. Lack of oral awareness can cause children to put too much food in their mouths in an attempt to increase the sensation. When the mouth is fully stuffed with food, children obtain more sensory information about the boundaries of their mouths and the presence of food in the mouth. The stuffing wakes up the mouth and helps the child know that there is still food in the mouth.
Oral defensiveness is another possible cause behind overstuffing. Orally defensive children experience unpleasant sensations from food texture, temperature, and/or taste. Unpredictable movement of foods can cause an uncomfortable feeling in their mouth. Many children with oral tactile defensiveness may also overstuff the mouth because it reduces the inconsistent tactile input to the cheeks when smaller pieces of food are moved around.
Oral Motor Skills
Overstuffing can also occur when a child has difficulty using skillful tongue movements for chewing. Movements may be uncoordinated or limited in direction or strength. When there is a great deal of food in the mouth, a very small amount of tongue movement will push some food to the side for chewing, whereas smaller pieces require much more control of movement.
How you can help at home
You can help to improve your child’s oral awareness with a toothbrush! Brushing on the top and sides of tongue, inside cheeks, and along gums with a child-sized toothbrush can help to increase awareness of the mouth. Use a small vibrator massager before the meal to help build more awareness and movement in the tongue, lips, and cheeks before the meal.
Varying texture and temperature throughout mealtime can also help to improve your child’s oral awareness. Adding crunchy, cold, seasoned/spicy, and even carbonated options throughout the meal can help a child become more aware of the mouth and organize oral movement more effectively. When a child can feel and taste the food, they will be less likely to overstuff.
While your child is working on improving their oral awareness and sensation in the mouth, you can also help your child learn proper pacing. You can help them to learn to take small bites by limiting the amount of food presented on the plate. As pacing improves you can begin to offer a larger amount of food at a time. Older children will be able to better understand the concept of “one bite at a time.”
Pocketing and overstuffing can both become learned behaviors. In this case, intervention may be necessary. Here at Talk Time Speech Language Therapy, we look at the whole child and work collaboratively with other team members to ensure we’re addressing each component of your child’s speech, language, and feeding needs. Contact us to schedule your free consultation!