If you’re not doing baby led weaning and starting finger foods right from the beginning, it can be hard to figure out exactly when the best time to start finger foods is. You have to think about when to advance in textures, and also know what are considered to be the best first finger foods. If purees are all your baby knows (or wants), how do you figure this out? Do you have to wait until your baby has their pincer grasp? Do you wait until they’re closer to 1 year of age? Is there a benefit to starting earlier vs. later? What are you supposed to be doing? These are all questions I get regularly!
As a pediatric feeding expert and dietitian, I recommend introducing finger foods to your baby as early on as possible after starting solids, and once your baby shows the signs and skills that they’re ready, and willing to accept finger foods!
So, what are these signs?
Your baby should have the ability to safely swallow a smooth puree, without any difficulty, or excessive gagging. And, they should have started reaching for objects, or pieces of food, and bringing them to their mouth with precision. These signs usually happen when your baby is around 6-7 months old.
But wait…that barely leaves time for any purees?! Well yes, that’s sort of the point!
You see, once you’ve established that they can swallow safely, and you can see that your baby knows how to handle purees, they’ve served their purpose! There is no need to continually offer exclusively purees, in fact, this can be holding them back. For some babies, purees need to be offered for a few weeks before they get the hang of it. For others, it may only take a couple days! This doesn’t mean you have to stop offering purees on a spoon, you can definitely do a bit of a mixed approach. But, now that your baby is showing they’re developmentally ready, and able to pick up food, and handle different textures, they can (and ideally will) start the self-feeding journey on textured finger foods.
So, let’s review the benefits of introducing finger foods and a variety of textures early on.
PS: if you don’t dig blogs, I get it! Check out this week’s podcast on this topic instead.
Helps develop oral motor skills
Offering finger foods, early-on, really helps your baby to develop stronger oral motor skills. They teach your baby how to bite pieces of food, and how to chew that food, which helps them develop better jaw strength. Finger foods even help them learn how to use their tongue, to maneuver pieces of food from the left side, to the right side of the mouth, to bring food to the back of the mouth, and eventually – to swallow it! The more practice they get in the early months, the better they become at using these oral motor skills later in life. In fact, research shows that children who haven’t really been introduced to lumpy, more advanced textures, until past 9 months, actually experienced more feeding difficulties as time went on.
I want you to offer variety in the textures of finger foods too, because the more variety the better! There’s no need to continuously offer the same, typical “baby finger foods” (think banana, sweet potato, and avocado), that are soft and easy to chew, for long periods of time. Offering variety will help your baby see what they need to do to manage, and maneuver, thick, lumpy, spongy, crispy, and chewy textures! By promptly nudging your baby through the different spectrum of textures, it will help increase their acceptance of ALL types of foods, saving you the future headache of texture troubles down the road!
If you’re interested in helping expose your baby to a variety of different textures, you’ve got to sign up for my Texture Timeline™ challenge, beginning February 19th, 2021! Sign up now to get the insider details on the Texture Timeline™, learn how to recognize when your baby is ready to move on in textures, and receive one recipe per day to practice that texture phase, and cook live with me! I’ll be answering all your questions live over on Instagram, every single day, for 5 days, while we move your baby through each phase of the Texture Timeline™. Can’t wait to have you join us – for FREE!
Helps desensitize the gag reflex
Introducing finger foods earlier, is a great way to gradually desensitize your baby’s gag reflex, which is very sensitive in the beginning! The gag reflex starts off positioned at the front of their mouth, usually right around the front portion of the tongue. So, when something touches this area, or goes slightly past it, they’ll likely start gagging, and sometimes it can be excessive. By introducing finger foods, you allow your baby to become accustomed to having food further back in their mouth, over the molar area (which is where food is chewed), and spread over a larger surface area on the tongue. Overtime, this will help move the gag reflex towards the back of the tongue.
Naturally, you’ll see your baby gagging more in the beginning, as they work to push this back, but in the long run, this will make mealtime more enjoyable (without gagging every two seconds), and reserves the gag for truly needed situations. It’s important to keep those early mealtime experiences positive and enjoyable, and excessive gagging can sometimes do the opposite, and make your baby hesitant to try new foods later on (cue picky eating!). So, it’s really important that you feel comfortable with gagging, and work really hard to remain positive while it’s happening, encouraging your baby to keep coughing and assuring them they’re doing a great job, so that your fear doesn’t transfer to your baby.
It’s also important to note that delaying finger food introduction does not help with this. Whenever you introduce finger foods there is going to be more gagging – because it’s new. So, regardless of when you choose to introduce finger foods, you are going to see an increase in gagging coinciding with that introduction. Additionally, if you wait longer to introduce, you may notice the reaction is more severe because they are SO used to purees at that point, that the new textures are even more difficult for them to manage.
It provides a sensory experience with food
Introducing different textures through a variety of finger foods allows your baby to experience eating with all five senses, which reduces the chances of picky eating as time goes on. Sensory processing is HUGE when you’re learning about a new food, and when determining if you like it or not. When a child is learning to eat, it’s not just about taste, but it’s also about the feel of the food, the smell of the food, what it feels and tastes like in their mouth, cheek, or squished between their hands. That whole sensory experience, and playing with food, is actually really important for your baby, and introduces them to their food on a more intimate level.
Think about when they’re only being spoon fed for a long time, they miss out on all of this! Food goes right from the spoon, to the center of their tongue, with little opportunity to smell the food, or see the food, let alone touch or play with it. And so, when the time comes that you finally offer finger foods (or new foods in general), much later on, your baby may show an aversion to different textures, or types of food, because they didn’t “get to know” the food on a sensory level early-on. The bottom-line here, giving your baby lots of exposure to a variety of textures and flavours, with all five senses, will reduce the likelihood of picky eating later on!
Take home message
At the end of the day, please know that purees and finger foods can, and should, both have a place in feeding! There’s a time and a place for each, and when you’re reading your baby’s cues, and feel confident and educated on how to do them both, feeding your baby a variety of textures will come naturally! Even if it’s been a few months and you haven’t introduced your baby to finger foods yet, that’s ok! The beauty is you can jump in at any time and start offering that practice, once you see they’re ready and you are willing!
Remember to sign up for the Texture Timeline™ challenge that begins February 19th! If you’re still feeling nervous, or struggling with the thought of advancing textures with your baby, this gives you a step-by-step guide on taking the first steps! Once you’re in, you’ll receive one email a day with details about which phase we’ll be working on that day, and what recipe we’ll be cooking together, with the goal of helping to build your confidence through doing, and to move your baby into the world of finger foods! I’ll send out a grocery list before the challenge starts, and the signs to look for that your baby is ready to progress in textures! Click here to sign up now!