It doesn’t matter whether you belong to the camp of the “live to eat” or you believe that food is necessary because you need to “eat to live”, we all know that food plays an important part in our lives. As adults, having a meal is not just to fill our stomachs but it can serve as a platform for interactions with family and friends. Similarly, apart from providing children with the nutrition required to grow up healthily, food can also play a part in helping with infants and toddlers’ learning and be a platform for interaction for you and your child.
In a previous article, we talked about introducing solid food to infants when they are 6-months old. One of the methods is baby-led weaning, where you allow the baby to self-feed with his or her own fingers. Today, we will delve more into how parents can also use food as a form of activity for their children and look into some of the skills that infants and toddlers can pick up through this.
Sensory, fine and gross motor skills
Letting babies touch the food with their fingers and hands help to develop their sensory and fine motor skills. There may be occasions where you want to give your baby some food as a form of play or exploration and not as a meal. This is a safe way for babies to use their sensory skills as the items given are all edible. It is not just about giving them cooked food items. You could possibly start by giving them some of the food items in their original form like an uncut watermelon and then cut it open and show them what it looks like inside.
*Take note of possible allergic reactions and ensure the food items are in the right texture and size for them to hold on to while not being a choking hazard. You could start with strips of food at the start so it’s easy to hold and work towards pea-sized food when they are able to use their pincer grasp (picking items up with their thumb and forefinger). Food items that are round and hard should be avoided in the early years.
Sensory play is important as it builds nerve connections in the brain's pathways. The increase in these connections in the brain will help with the child's ability to complete more complex learning tasks such as language, problem solving skills, and social interaction. Letting babies have time to explore their food would allow them to use all their 5 senses!
There’s no telling for sure what they may do with the item you decide to give but one thing is for sure, be prepared for some mess! Putting a big plastic sheet in the area should help in the cleaning up.
Letting babies self-feed means the decision and ownership is on them. They get to plan which food to pick first and which to leave to last. They can decide how much is one mouthful and how much to eat. As they get older, you could involve them in grocery shopping by asking them what they would like to have. They will then have to face the consequences of these decisions. Making these seemingly small decisions all help in building their decision making process and as it slowly builds up and they feel confident of their decisions, they build their self-esteem.
This may be a practice for the infant, but it could also well be a practice for parents. Learning when to let go and have your children make the decisions for themselves may also be a lesson that parents need to go through.
As their fine and gross motor skills start to develop when they grow older, you could also get them involved in the food preparation process. Being able to use different tools and knowing how to use them in a safe manner is a useful skill. This process also helps to train and hone their fine and gross motor skills.Children also love to be of some help and being able to contribute to putting food on the table provides them with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. The cleaning-up process after meals is also an area where you could involve them. All these involvements also goes into the process of building their self-esteem.
Last but not least, it also serves as a good platform for parent-child interaction as it can be seen as a bonding session between you and your child. Having a strong bond with your child is key to their emotional development. At the same time, it is a good way to keep your children busy while getting household chores done. This helps to reduce your stress and ensure that your emotions are kept in check!
As you start to introduce solid foods, you would want to introduce new words to the baby as it is a great platform to increase their vocabulary. The basic information to relay would be to let them know the name of the food. You would also definitely start to describe the colours and the shapes of the food. But what else can you introduce? As childcare teachers, we love to bring in opposite words. As they look at the food items, you can talk about the state of the food (for example: watery or dry). When they touch it, you can bring up words about the texture of the food (for example: soft or hard). When they eat it, it will be a different type of texture (for example: crunchy or soggy). Linking these words to something concrete or directly to their experience makes them understand the meaning of it better too.
Infants and toddlers may not be able to say the words but constantly listening to the sounds of words is important in learning how to say them too. These early years are a great time for children to learn and one of the ways they could learn is through the actions of you as a parent as they pick them up through mimicking. Therefore, conversing in more than 1 language during this period of time is great for them to learn. Take the chance to do the same food item in English and other mother tongue languages! It may be a good recap and training session for us as adults too!
There are many things that children can learn if we think about the activities we can do around food. The most important thing is to determine if your child is ready for it so that you push them towards the right direction at the right time.