Why Should I Encourage Mouthing?
Have you ever wondered why babies put everything into their mouths? It might seem like an unsanitary habit, but mouthing actually plays an important role in your child’s development! In fact, when parents come to us with feeding problems, one of the first questions we ask is “Did your child mouth as an infant?” That’s because mouthing is one of the first steps in a child’s journey towards feeding readiness.
Why is Mouthing Important?
Mouthing is how babies first learn to experience the world around them. The mouth is a baby’s window to their bodies and the world. The sensations in an infant’s mouth are more highly developed than any other part of their little bodies. Through mouthing, a baby is learning about:
Oral-Motor Skills: Mouthing helps develop tongue movement, jaw strength, and chewing skills. Strengthening and refining these movements and learning how to coordinate the different parts of the mouth help a child prepare for eating solid foods and later on for speech sound development.
Oral Desensitization: Mouthing helps young children to experience different textures and temperatures. For infants, this helps children move the gag reflex from the front of their mouth to the back. Later on, mouthing of different textures helps children move from soft purees to food that is more lumpy.
Calming and self-soothing: oral exploration can help babies feel calm and learn to self-soothe, especially during teething. As teeth eruption comes and goes, so too will mouthing for comfort. (Please note, this is not the same as pacifier use for comfort. A pacifier in the mouth all day for extended periods can actually hinder feeding and speech development. Read here for more information.)
When Do Babies Start Mouthing?
Oral exploration can start as early as when the baby is in the womb! Have you ever seen an ultrasound picture of a baby with their fingers in the mouth? As infants, babies will begin to suck the breast for comfort, play with bottle nipples, put their hands in their mouth, and put their parents’ hands in their mouths. They may begin to suck on a pacifier or a blanket. This stage is known as generalized mouthing and lasts from birth until about 4-5 months of age. As a baby’s alertness and motor development improves, they will be able to start mouthing more objects as they grasp for them and bring them to their face and explore them during tummy time. This is known as the discriminative mouthing phase. This phase is when a baby starts experiencing more sensory information, such as the size, weight, texture, and temperature of items.
What Can I Do to Encourage Mouthing?
Provide opportunities for mouthing by having different mouthing toys available. Just like anything else, each kid will have their own preferences of which toys they like and will go through phases of having preferred mouthing toys. Make sure you have different shapes, weights, and textures of toys available for your child to explore.
If they are mouthing items on their own, leave them be! It is a perfectly normal stage of development for your child to have their hands or a toy in their mouth. As long as the item isn’t a choking hazard, try not to worry too much if it doesn’t seem sanitary and let them explore.
Make it a pleasurable experience for your child. Follow their lead with trying new objects to mouth. You may need to guide it to their mouth for them to try. If they enjoy it, great! If not, don’t overwhelm your child. Try again with a different toy or try the object again another day.
For young children, you can use chewing toys. Try putting some in the freezer to explore cold temperatures too! When your child is able to sit well in a highchair, you can introduce teething silverware, such as Gootensils. Around 6 months, as long as your baby is not biting, you can also use hard food, such as a whole carrot or whole celery stalk, and mesh feeders to introduce different flavor sensations to your baby.
What Mouthing Toys Do You Recommend?
When purchasing teethers, we recommend looking for toys that are lightweight and easy for your baby to manipulate, large enough to not be a choking hazard, a variety of smooth and bumpy textures and varying levels of firmness, easily washable, and durable. Below are some examples of toys we recommend for mouthing:
We hope you have found this information helpful in learning about why mouthing is a natural and healthy part of a baby’s development! If your child hasn’t had too much experience with mouthing yet, that’s ok! It is never too late to start. If you have any concerns about your child’s development or feeding skills, please feel free to contact us.