It’s mealtime with your 9 month old baby and it’s spaghetti night. You cut the noodles into small bites, put them in a bowl, and top them with some sauce. You sit down with a spoon and start feeding your baby. But she is having none of it. She just keeps grabbing at the spoon. And when she does get her chubby little hands on it, she won’t let go. Spaghetti is starting to fly. If this isn’t bad enough, she begins smearing the bits of stray spaghetti all around on her tray and then…her face. Balled up fists move in the general direction of her mouth, but much of the time they miss their target. You are beginning to regret adding so much sauce to the bowl. While on one hand you can appreciate the cuteness of the moment, you are also desperately hoping to regain control (and cleanliness). Taking a deep breath, you wipe off her face and her tray and start again.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you are not alone. And if the parent’s actions described above sound reasonable to you, you are also not alone. Before our time is up today, I hope to convince you that there is a better way to managing mealtimes with your littles. And that the better way is really quite simple:
Let your baby make messes at mealtimes.
Why, you ask? If mid-meal wiping is working for you, you are one of the lucky few. And your luck could run out anytime. There are several not-so-desirable side effects that can come from being the clean police at mealtimes (more on that later). But aside from that, what if I told you that there are benefits to messy mealtimes? Yes, it’s true! I have seen this play out both professionally and personally with my own kids. What good could possibly come from the disaster that is my baby at dinnertime, you ask? Let’s take a look.
1. Mess-Making is Learning
Babies and young toddlers actually derive a lot of information from the messes they are making. Touching, feeling, smearing, and even throwing foods helps babies to learn about what the foods are and even learn their names. A University of Iowa study of 16 month-old toddlers found that those who physically interacted with their food the most were more likely to learn (and say) the names of the foods they were served (1). Exploring during mealtimes promotes learning– the very thing we want for our kids!
Trish LaCour, our very own pediatric Occupational Therapist and feeding specialist says this of the connection between mealtime messes and learning:
“Babies and young toddlers are hard wired to explore their environment with their hands and their mouths. The touch sensors in their mouths and fingertips are extraordinary at identifying nuances in textures, shapes, temperatures, and taste. This exploration feeds their brains with information that helps them create associations, memories of their experiences, and a general understanding of the world around them.”
So messy meals might be better for baby, but is it worth the stress? Well, I would actually argue that…
2. More Mess = Less Stress
Okay, now you think I’ve lost it, but let me explain. If you can learn to make peace with the mess, you will no longer need to spend your whole meal time attempting to prevent the mess from happening in the first place. Instead, you can sit back and enjoy watching your baby explore, taste, and yes, even play. And the even better news is that you might actually find you have time to eat your own food before it gets cold. Have I convinced you yet? A more relaxing dinner time is high on my parenting priority list!
I would also add a reminder that we are talking about babies and young toddlers here. There most certainly comes a time when teaching table manners is appropriate and necessary. Trust me- I am not advocating food fights. But I am saying that a baby can make a mess within the confines of her highchair and just be left to it. This is one reason high chairs are a must at mealtimes. It gives baby a space to safely explore their food without infringing on everyone else’s meal enjoyment.
3. Messy Meals Promote Self-Feeding and Independence
It is difficult to learn a new skill if someone else is always doing it for you. So it goes with feeding. By backing off and letting your baby take the lead, you are not only giving him the freedom to learn and explore, you are giving him invaluable practice at self-feeding. This is an extremely important skill in a child’s life, but one that I find many parents overlook in the day to day busyness. Of course it will be faster if you feed your child. Of course it will be less messy and make for faster clean-up. But this is a short-term win. If you are the one always doing the feeding, it may actually take your child longer to learn to feed himself than if you had let him practice from the get-go. Child-directed feeding is better for your child’s development and even for his overall willingness to eat new foods. Which brings me to my next point…
4. Messy Meals Protect Against Food Refusal (Aversions)
If a baby is not allowed to touch a food or is wiped off every time she does touch it, she may not learn about the food texture in the way she is supposed to. She might become very sensitive to the feel of the food on her hands, face, or eventually in her mouth. She may start to refuse the food altogether. While this can happen for other reasons as well, it’s important to recognize the role that the meal routine can have in food refusal. If you are concerned you are already seeing signs of refusal like I’ve just described, don’t despair. “Always begin where the child is comfortable, and never force a child to touch something they do not want to. Continue to provide consistent opportunities for exposure of foods and even play things that may mimic the textures the child dislikes (play in water table, play-doh, slime, etc). Most importantly, be patient. If problems such as unwillingness to touch persist, it may be time to contact a Sensory Certified Occupational Therapist,” says LaCour. A Sensory Certified OT is uniquely trained to help your child manage the sensory input they are receiving.
LaCour also points out that the more a child is allowed to participate in meal routines independently (touching, picking up, squeezing, banging with a spoon, dipping with a spoon, feeding a parent), the more likely the child is to place the food into his mouth without any prompting from the parent (every parent’s dream come true!).
Survival Tips for the Type-A Parent (myself included!)
If this article has made your heart race and your palms sweat, read on for a few pointers to help you ease into embracing the mess.
- Save really messy foods for bath night, but DON’T remove them from the menu (spaghetti, yogurt, etc). Better yet, build bath time into your routine every night after dinner so you don’t have to worry about putting your kid to bed with sweet potatoes in his hair (although I won’t tell if you do).
- Keep your baby or young toddler in a high chair (but pulled up to table) until they are at an age where they can follow table rules. This helps contain the mess. And studies have actually shown that babies are more likely to explore their foods in a highchair vs a seat at the table (1). This is a good thing (for all the reasons we talked about above).
- Use an all plastic or wooden baby seat instead of the kind with a fabric cover. These are much easier to clean. I actually like this one (and you can’t beat the price!): Fisher Price Travel High Chair
- Use washcloths for cleaning up your baby after messy meals. They work a lot better than paper towels, in my experience. I keep a stash of washcloths in the kitchen that are just for baby’s face.
- If you are worried about a particular outfit at mealtimes, change or remove your babies clothes. This will help everyone feel more relaxed.
As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to your therapist, pediatrician, or health care providers if you need guidance on mealtime routines. If you are concerned that your child’s feeding skills are not developing appropriately, consider reaching out to us for an occupational therapy/ speech therapy/ feeding therapy evaluation. Not local? Ask your pediatrician or insurance provider for some places to look into.
Cheers to Messy Babies and More Relaxed Parents,
Annie and Trish
- Messy Children Make Better Learners. Available at: https://now.uiowa.edu/2013/12/messy-children-make-better-learners
- Guidelines for the Development of Self-Feeding Skills. Available at: https://www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/156%20Self-Feeding.pdf