Judy here! I’m an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy. It seems like there are so many ideas on the internet for how to keep toddlers and kids occupied while we shelter in place. But…how do you play with a baby?
Guess what? As an OT I work with play in each of my sessions! How does this relate to feeding? Well, infant development and play skills are essential in setting the foundation for gross and fine motor development. They also develop vision and cognitive skills. Eventually all of these things piece together to promote successful feeding! (And learning!)
In short, play helps promote feeding. It's all connected.
We've created a free printable for you to reference if you're in need of some ideas that I recommend to my private practice clients. You might be doing a lot of these things already, but we just wanted to offer some inspiration for easy ways to play with your baby that can help promote development, bonding and fun for both of you.
Let’s talk DIPS! Did you know that the use of dips is something I use all the time in feeding therapy to help reluctant eaters learn how to eat more foods?
There are so many dip options - these are just a few! Kids also enjoy ketchup and ranch (obviously), as well as olive tapenade, broths and soups (including bone broth), gravy, dressings etc.
As an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy, I find dips really helpful for the following reasons:
I recommend offering them as early as 6 months (stick to the less salty ones in infancy like yogurt, smashed avocado, fruit purees, olive oil). Start by dipping strips of food into the dip and handing them to baby. By 14 months, your child may be able to dip on their own. You don’t have to use dips all the time, but it is fun to try them out when your kiddo isn’t into eating a specific food.
We hope you enjoy trying dips with your child! Don't forget to connect with us on Facebook or Instagram if you're struggling with your child's eating.
Have you noticed that if you let your baby or toddler feed themselves with loaded utensils they are likely to hold the spoon or fork hostage?
Foodie Judy here! I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist specializing in Feeding Therapy. I work with dozens of private clients each week in their homes in Colorado, helping them learn how to successfully eat - many of my clients have medical or developmental issues affecting food.
One trick I use is the Three Spoon Circus, whereby you introduce a third loaded spoon (or fork) when practicing with utensils. Without the struggle to pry the utensil from your child’s hands, mealtime stays more fun and positive and your child may be more likely to continue self-feeding.
We recommend introducing loaded utensils around 6 months in our online Infant Feeding course - yes, utensils are important in baby-led weaning (infant self-feeding)! Your baby won’t be able to scoop with a spoon or stab with a fork for many months, but they have to practice to learn! Make sure they’re also using their hands for many of their meals - involve utensils here and there so they have the opportunity to practice, but touching food and using their hands are critical at this age.
If you have our online Toddler Course, make sure to check out step 8 - we have a great video on play-based activities to promote utensil use as your child gets older! Mastering utensils is a process, one that requires lots of practice and modeling.
This Three Spoon Circus can be used for babies and toddlers who are not quite proficient with dipping/scooping with a spoon or stabbing with a fork. It can also be used with babies who are transitioning off of being spoon fed when parents want to let them self-feed but are nervous to give them whole, non-pureed foods. Watching your baby do it themselves oftentimes builds confidence to try additional textures.
Here are the steps:
Shown: NumNum GOOtensils, such a hot commodity that they sell out from time to time. If you can’t find them, try a short-handled baby spoon.
You are not a bad parent if your kid loves beige, starchy foods!
Foodie Judy here. I’m an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy with babies and toddlers. No matter how much variety you serve your children, it is still normal for them to prefer crunchy, beige, starchy foods - and cheese. It doesn’t mean you messed up. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your child. We hope they’ll still eat many other foods, but yes - many kids tend to gravitate toward starches, snacks and anything with cheese.
Why do kids prefer these foods?
How can you help your kiddo branch out from beige foods?
We are frequently asked about serving soup to babies and toddlers. Learning to eat soup may be a messy process, but with practice kids figure it out! Soup is an awesome way to expose your child to different flavors, textures and nutrients - including lentils, vegetables and herbs!
Products shown here:
Below are some examples of ways you can modify soup to serve it to babies and kids of various ages.
A few notes:
Do you have a toddler or baby that dislikes getting their face cleaned after mealtime? Did you know their reluctance to wash their hands after a meal can affect how they eat during that meal?
So much of mealtime success depends on the eating environment and how toddlers perceive the entire experience. If they get their face scrubbed after eating - which many toddlers perceive as a negative sensory experience - many toddlers associate the entire eating process with negativity.
One feeding therapy technique from Judy (as found in our Toddler Course) involves cleaning up using 2 bowls - one with warm, soapy water and one with clean water.
Sadie, Megan’s niece, is shown here playing with these bowls independently, but of course we recommend assisting your toddler in dipping their hands in the bowls while you very gently wipe their face with a separate wet washcloth. Of course, help them avoid dumping water everywhere or eating the bubbles!
This serves multiple purposes - it helps clean your toddler’s hands faster, it gets them used to washing up after a meal, and it distracts them with something fun while you gently wash their face. They may be more likely to come to the table because they see the end of mealtime as a fun thing!
Our Toddler Course is full of tons of feeding therapy and nutrition techniques like these that will help you feel great about feeding your family. No more mealtime battles, no more begging or bribing, no more frustration around food.
You’ll receive access to our course indefinitely (as long as we’re selling/hosting them) and you can go back and watch them as often as you’d like. Read the feedback our clients have given us about the course - we look forward to helping your family as well!
Do you have a child that wants to be independent? Perhaps your child is also becoming more selective about foods. Guess what? You can utilize their desire to do things themselves in a positive way to promote successful mealtimes!
Foodie Judy here, back for another feeding therapy installment! Incorporating a motor skill into the eating process can be a great way to interest children in food - kids are more inclined to eat what they created! Plus, children are hard-wired to practice, practice, practice until they master a skill, so even if they’re initially uninterested in eating a cutie mandarin segment (a wet, squishy food) when served, suddenly it’s a fun food to eat when they get to peel it.
We love serving cuties because they’re inexpensive, a perfect size for little hands, and contain a lot of vitamin C - important in absorbing iron! This is a great activity for kids 18+ months, as they start to utilize more bilateral coordination at that age (one hand holds the object, the other does the work). This skill is important for so many tasks as they get older, including playing instruments, cooking and creating artwork.
Here's the steps for teaching your child to peel a cutie:
If your child struggled to peel the cutie peel, start by having them pull apart the segments first. Get the peel started so they can more easily continue peeling it off. Check out Megan’s daughter Mia practice this exercise by swiping through this Instagram post. She happened to really want to eat the cutie because it’s a favorite food, but notice that she was adamant that she peeled it herself. The last video is my favorite. Show your kids the videos and try it together!
Here are some developmental goals of this activity:
Need more help with a picky eater? Check out our toddler course!
Judy here, back with another feeding therapy tip! Many families like baking cookies from scratch around the holidays - perhaps it's something you did with your family growing up, and hopefully you have positive memories of the experience!
Did you know that baking holiday cookies is also an amazing sensory, fine/large motor, and life skill activity that I actually use with some feeding therapy clients? Check out these images of me doing this with a client!
Baking cookies from scratch can be especially helpful for kids who hate touching gooey textures or getting their hands messy.
A few tips:
Activities you can give your child to do, depending on age and comfort level:
How can you make this a success?
You can start baking with kids starting at 16 to 18 months old. They will be touching (and eventually eating) various textures, which makes great sensory play. You child will also be practicing fine and large motor development, math, communication/language, following directions/sequencing, and patience! Most of all, you are encouraging independence, a love for cooking, and making memories as a family!
Does my baby need to be able to hold their own bottle?
Foodie Judy here - welcome! Megan and I have the privilege of interacting with thousands of families on Instagram and our private Feeding Littles Clients Only Facebook Group for those who have taken our online or in-person courses. One question we have heard often is, "Should my baby be able to hold their own bottle?"
The short answer: yes. We want babies to be able to hold their own bottle, as doing so is an important skill and strength-building exercise that develops their hands at a midline position. However, for a variety of reasons we always want to hold/supervise baby as they bottle feed - more on this later.
Note: taking milk from a bottle is a skill that many exclusively breastfed babies never need to do. Some babies never accept a bottle and go straight to a cup. If your baby doesn't need to or won't take a bottle, they're not missing a key developmental skill as long as they're also practicing "hands to midline" in other capacities. More on this below.
First, let's discuss midline position, why it's critical in your child's development, and how to help promote bringing hands to midline or crossing midline.
What is "midline" and why does it matter?"
The midline is an invisible line from the top of our head to bottoms of our feet, separating the two sides of the body. We cross that imagery line any time we move a foot, hand or eye into the space of the other foot, hand or eye. We also cross the midline with our tongues when we use the tongue to laterally move food from one side of our mouths to the other.
The ability to freely cross the midline allows us to do almost every daily life activity, including bathing, brushing our teeth and hair, driving a car, using a keyboard or playing sports. Midline is necessary for visual tracking. We rely on visual tracking for reading, as our eyes must continually cross the midline as they scan the page. Watch a young reader as they learn to read a simple book: at first, they may have to turn their head slightly as they read the book, then they progress to pointing to the works as their heads stay mostly still. Eventually they no longer need to point to the words as their eyes do all of the work - crossing midline has become automatic.
Not only is crossing the midline essential, but it's also important for your baby to be able to hold objects at midline. When toddlers can't hold their own cup, they struggle to stay hydrated. Babies who can't successfully hold food at midline may have trouble learning how to self-feed. Check out baby Bryson (7 months), below, holding his own water cup at mealtime. (For more on water and hydration needs in babies, toddlers and kids, click here.)
Thus, the reason why we want baby to eventually hold a bottle is because it leads to holding other objects like water cups, food, toys and eventually books, crayons and pencils in their hands. It's part of a progression that eventually supports independence and learning.
OK, so midline is important...but how do we develop it during bottle feeding?
Around 3 months of age, babies begin to notice touch inputs in their hands as they take shape of an object like a rattle, toy, bottle or breast. By 4-6 months, babies begin to transfer objects from hand to hand. This is a very exciting fine motor milestone - you may notice that your baby practices this repeatedly. It's essential in their development of a sense of midline.
Since we know hands at midline are important, here are some techniques I use to help babies work toward holding their bottle - and eventually other objects - at midline when you are holding them for a feeding. We always want to hold/supervise babies with bottles.
I'm breastfeeding. Does my baby need to hold a bottle? How can I develop their hands at midline?
Some breastfeeding moms choose to not give a bottle of expressed milk to baby and go straight to a cup when offering water (6+ months). Perhaps mom doesn't respond well to a pump or baby refuses a bottle. If your baby doesn't ever take a bottle, they're not missing out on a developmental skill. They don't need to learn how to drink from a bottle to be a successful self-feeder and cup drinker.
It's still important for breastfed babies to bring their hands to midline while feeding. Below are some techniques I use with my breastfeeding clients to help promote hands to midline:
My baby can hold their own bottle? Can I just let them do their own bottle feeds?
Once your baby has the ability to hold their own bottle, many parents want to let them bottle feed independently without holding baby. You may see babies drinking bottles independently and wonder if your baby is "too old" to be held for bottle feeds.
I'm a realist. I bottle fed my children and work with parents every day in my private practice. I completely understand that sometimes it's just easier to hand baby their bottle in the stroller at the zoo and let them do their thing once they're able to hold it themselves. We always come from a place of gentle education without judgment. Take this information and do what works best for your family.
The concerns I have regarding independent bottle feeding are two-fold:
The flow of a bottle can be fast, and sometimes babies can't keep up with it or can't pull the bottle away while drinking. This is why it's especially important to avoid propping a bottle for baby to drink. When a baby is unsupervised while drinking a bottle, their risk of overeating or choking on the liquid is increased. Furthermore, a baby drinking on a completely flat surface like in a crib has an increased risk of ear infections, as milk can pool in their mouth and flow back into their Eustachian tubes.
Note: if you are breastfeeding, laying a baby flat during breastfeeds (for example, while side lying) does not carry the same ear infection risk because milk doesn't pool in their mouth the same say.
When babies drink from a bottle while sitting straight up (e.g. in a high chair) they have to tilt their head back to drink, which leads to poor sucking skills. If your baby needs milk while seated, we recommend working on a cup instead of a bottle. Start with an assisted open cup and work to a straw or other cups as described in this post.
Bonding and Interaction
Bottle feeding, like breastfeeding, is meant to be an interactive experience. Similarly to family meals with solid foods, bottle feeding time is an opportunity to bond. Holding your baby while they bottle feed - even if they hold their own bottle - promotes communication, language, social interaction, eye contact, rhythm (if you rock or sway), trust in their caregivers, and a sense of security. Encourage them to hold their own bottle when they're ready, but I encourage you to hold them at a 45 degree angle and interact with them while they bottle feed.
What if my baby won't sit still for bottle feeds?
Older babies (7-12 months) start to get mobile and may not want to sit still for a bottle feed. If they have been crawling, cruising or walking with their bottle it can be hard to get them interested in cuddling during bottle feeds. Sometimes their refusal to sit still may tell us more about their development than we realize.
How to Choose the Best High Chair or Booster Seat - Tips for Successful Eating from a Feeding Therapist
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What is good positioning, and why does it matter?
Selecting baby gear is one of the more overwhelming parts of parenthood. There are so many options available, and friends, family members, Facebook parenting groups, and Amazon reviews all pull you in different directions. How do you know what's best?
As a feeding specialist, I have a few favorite high chairs, but almost every high chair can be modified to help your baby or toddler be most successful at mealtime. You see, when we are well-positioned for any activity, we are more likely to stay and endure that activity longer. We really want our babies and toddlers to want to sit in their high chair and participate in eating, not get out right away because they're uncomfortable or unstable.
Most high chairs are created to be easy to clean or transport, but they don't actually promote great sitting dynamics. They may support a baby that doesn't have good independent sitting skills, but they don't lead to successful positioning long-term.
(For the record, before eating any food all babies - barring medical or developmental issues - should be sitting independently on the floor first, not just propped in a high chair. Read more here.)
Many of our Infant and Toddler Course clients have changed their child's high chair positioning and have noticed monumental improvement in eating - it really does matter! Watch the video below to learn more about why positioning is important, what ideal positioning actually is, and how to modify your child's chair to promote great stability and sitting dynamics.
In summary, here are some important points about positioning:
Notice in the image below how baby is seeking stability by crossing his feet! This is something babies - and adults do - so providing good support can really help improve endurance in the high chair or booster.
What other logistical and safety factors are important in selecting a high chair?
What are our favorite high chairs?
As mentioned above, most chairs can be modified for good positioning, but I wanted to share our Foodie Judy-approved chairs so you know that the chair you buy promotes good sitting dynamics. When evaluating our favorite chairs, I considered positioning (including the ability for baby to have their hips in the preferred anterior - not posterior - pelvic tilt), ease of cleaning, adjustability, and general ergonomics.
The following chairs are my absolute favorite high chairs because the foot rest can be brought up to reach most six-month-olds' feet, and the baby can easily lean forward in the (ideal) positive tilt position to reach food. These chairs are also super easy to clean, slide up to the table to avoid needing a booster, and come in multiple colors (bonus)!
The chairs listed below promote generally good sitting dynamics but may need to be modified with a foot rest until baby's legs are long enough.
A word about the IKEA high chair...
Many families love the IKEA ANTILOP high chair because it's inexpensive (around $23) and easy to clean. However, the seat on this chair is deep so baby is far away from the edge of the tray when their back is supported, and the tray is difficult to maneuver and remove. It's just too big for many babies if not modified. If you decide to use this chair we recommend adding rolled up towels around your baby (or using one of the support pillows IKEA sells) and using one of the hacks shown below to add a footrest.
Some companies have created ANTILOP accessories that help add stability and comfort to this chair. Check out Yeah Baby Goods for ANTILOP cushions, placemats and footrests.
IKEA recently released the LANGUR high chair, which is a more ideal option because it has a foot rest (although it may not reach baby's feet), a better back rest, and a more user-friendly tray.
Want to modify your IKEA chair (or other chair) to have a foot rest? Here are a few hacks from our followers!
Put a small chair behind the ANTILOP to create a foot rest:
Use an exercise band around the legs to create more stability in the feet:
If you are good with power tools, you may want to consider drilling holes in all four corners of an additional IKEA tray (sold for only $5) and sliding it up around the legs like this client did:
What about booster seats?
Booster chairs are meant to transition a toddler from a regular high chair to sitting at the right height with their family at the table. Ideally we want food no higher than your child's chest, so a booster allows a young eater to see their food when in a regular chair. Again, if you use some of the preferred chairs above, you probably don't need to purchase a booster seat.
When is your child ready for a booster chair? Many toddlers get antsy in a high chair with a tray sometime around 18-24 months, but it may happen earlier or later. We recommend keeping your child in their chair as long as they are comfortable, but eventually most kids want to sit with you at the table.
Note: your child might not have supported feet in a typical booster seat. The high chairs we recommend above can be converted to chairs you slide up to the table that still allow for a foot rest. They may be a better investment long-term because you don't need to buy a separate booster seat.
If you struggle with mealtime behavior, don't forget to check out our Toddler Course!
Watch this video where I explain positioning in a booster:
What about propped sitting chairs or floor seats like the Bumbo?
The Bumbo and other floor seats or propped sitting chairs don't teach a baby to sit and put their hips in an unfavorable posterior tilt position. We recommend avoiding these chairs or using them sparingly, and we don't recommend them for feeding.
We hope this helped you know how to best position your baby or child in their high chair or booster!
Megan and Judy, co-owners of Feeding Littles, bring you helpful info on food, nutrition, picky eating, and feeding young children. Megan McNamee MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Judy Delaware, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy with children 3 and under in Boulder, Colorado. Megan and Judy are both moms of two and love helping families develop a healthy appetite for all foods!