I encounter many children in Nairobi who are not able to chew solid food or have difficulty chewing solid food.

These 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds are not chewing and they eat very limited foods. They are very difficult to take on long trips with especially if you have not prepared any food for them because they will only eat food that is mashed. They are not able to eat any snack, fruit or food that is not mashed simply because they can not chew.

So what do you as a parent do? I know that it is very frustrating for parents to have a child that does not chew, and if they are a poor feeder it becomes even more frustrating!

And it is not only frustrating but it can also delay their language skills.

The relationship between chewing and talking & why it is important that you encourage your child to chew solid food

Children that have difficulty chewing solid food also have additional language delay because chewing uses the same muscles as talking. 

Read more on the relationship between chewing and talking.

It actually makes sense why your child needs to be chewing well if they are to have well developed language skills. This is because everything is sequential; a child will be weaned at 6 months after they start sitting and after they start chewing then you can expect their first words. 


What you can do to encourage your child to chew solid food

While there is no speech therapy clinic set up in Kenya geared towards taking children for feeding therapy, many countries overseas have feeding clinics that are attached to hospitals and private clinics.

So if a parent comes to my clinic with a child that is not chewing, chances are that they are also not talking. While I do offer therapy for talking, the advice that I give to parents to help their child with chewing include:

1. Model chewing

2. Add more texture to your child’s food

3. Offer your child an opportunity to experiment with food

How to encourage your child to chew

1. Model chewing

Instead of saying  “eat, swallow” when feeding a child, say to them ‘chew”. Also model the action, you know the mastication. This way you are showing them how to chew.

A person on a screen can also be a good model for your child. While I don’t really advocate for screens, seeing another baby taking a banana, having a bite and chewing it might just be the thing that motivates your child to want to chew.

Other good models could be their siblings, your partner or any other person around the house who is chewing.

Model the chewing action all the time while reinforcing it by telling your child “chew your food, chew your food”.

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2. Adding more texture to their food

Adding a bit of texture means that if you were used to giving your child mashed food, you start to give them something that is a bit lumpy or “chewy”. Mashed food can actually end up being a clutch for a child that is already developed the habit of not chewing. 

Your baby’s brain is very smart. If your baby is used to being given very soft foods, the brain just get used to that and decides that since it is being given mashed food it doesn’t make sense to chew anything.

Giving your child food that has bits of ” lumpy” particles, helps their brain to have a smooth transition as they will start to realise that there is something “more chewy” coming into their month. 

How to encourage your child to chew solid food.jpg 2

Continue to reinforce chewing as you add texture

I know that there could be valid concerns with parents saying that when they have tried to make the texture more chewy, their child ends up chocking or gagging. The advice I would give here is don’t just go from 0 to 10. If you are used to giving your child very mashed food, what you can do is start with something that is “fork masheable”. So mash most of the food but still leave some bits lumpy and make sure to bulk up the “fork mashed” food with stew so that your child doesn’t gag.

You can also add some souring agents e.g lemon to help curb the gagging.

Continue to reinforce the chewing tell them “chew, chew, chew”. Continue to model the chewing, “Look, so and so is chewing; look at them chewing; can you chew like them?” Be consistent with the reinforcing and the modelling. I know all this will stretch out feeding time, but you just have to continue to do it until the new habit is established.

How to encourage your child to chew solid food

3. Offer your child an opportunity to experiment with food

I know in African culture you are not supposed to “play” with food but that is exactly what am saying you do.

Give your child an opportunity to feed themselves, for example; 

  • Put them on a high-chair, let them be messy if you are not averse to mess and let them have time with their food. Allow them to experiment with it, to feel the texture, decide what is it they want to do with the food, whether they want to spit it out or to chew it. This will in itself help your child that has an aversion any to new foods curb that aversion.


Other things you can try to do to encourage your child to chew solid food

Child-led weaning

You are free to google what this is if you have never heard of it.

Child-led weaning is all about giving solid food to a child who is about 6 months old.  This food is not mashed but is given in solid form.

What tends happens is if you give your child food that has solid particles in it, they will reflexively chomp on it. They will not suck on it because they will realise that the texture has changed. This is because your child’s brain is smart and quite malleable because it is at its Critical Development Period. And that is why if over time a child is being given mashed food, their brain will specialise into knowing that all the food that goes into their mouth is food that they do not need to chew.

Give your child an opportunity to try solid food when they have already had their own food. Give them a plate during your meal time or when there is no pressure for them to take in the nutrition and let them experiment.

How to encourage your child to chew solid food

Final word

Try out these tips and see if they are of help.

If your child is older you could try give them chewing gum. The bubbles they get to try to blow while chewing gum might be just the thing that gets them excited about chewing solids foods.

Another way you can try making chewing fun is by getting them to play with some “sour jelly snakes”. You can shape these and eat them together.

The jellies should be sour because sour things tend to trigger the swallow reflex. Your child will not gag. 

I hope these tips will help you  overcome this hurdle and get your child chewing solid foods.

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Hi, I'm your teacher

Lorna Muthamia-Ochido

I run a family-centred speech-language therapy clinic, the largest in East and Central Africa. I’ve helped 15,000+ children optimise their communication outcomes (in other words, I make children smarter ☺).

Get your child talking in no time.

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