Peas in Her Hair, Again?! Why Babies Play With Their Food

he takes playing with his food very seriously

It’s dinner time and your baby is once again channeling Jackson Pollock as she throws, drips, and smears applesauce, spinach, and spaghetti to her heart’s delight. Sure, the mess can get real tiresome—and it can be frustrating when more of your child’s nutritious meal is in her hair than in her belly—but playing with food is actually a normal (and quite healthy) developmental stage for the high-chair set*. In fact, research has found that getting handsy with their grub may actually make kiddos smarter!

Here’s four fab reasons why you should embrace the messy face (and tray, clothes, and floor):

1. It helps baby learn to feed herself. 

Let your child mess around with her food and eventually she will figure out how to get it into her mouth. By 8 to 11 months, your child may even begin to reject being passively spoon-fed in favor of practicing her pincer grasp (an important fine-motor skill) to eat her Cheerios or peas all by her big-girl self. The ability to regularly use a spoon on her own likely won’t happen until 18–24 months, but feeding herself with her hands should help get her there faster.

2. Fun might prevent a picky eater. 

If your child is having a blast poking, squishing, and plopping his breakfast, chances are he’ll be more likely to eat and enjoy what you’re serving—which means he’ll probably be more willing to try new and more unexpected foods. In addition, it can make him more comfortable with a range of textures, stronger flavor profiles, and food combinations.

3. It’s brain-building. 

Babies don’t learn by listening to a lecture or reading a textbook—they learn through sensory experiences like sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. The more your child explores her food, the more she learns. For example, according to the research we mentioned above, playing with her meal can help your child learn to identify and name various foods earlier than if she has less hands-on access to them. Even the more challenging actions, like dropping her food on the floor or throwing it at the chandelier, can teach her lessons about cause and effect, both in terms of gravity and how mommy and daddy react.

4. It also frees you up to eat your dinner. 

Not having to spoon-feed your baby means you can sit back and fork-feed yourself! That’s a nice perk for tired, hungry parents, but it also provides yet another benefit for baby: Watching you serve yourself and model healthy eating will give him a jump on learning his own good eating habits. Sitting down to a family meal in general reaps heaps of benefits for children over time—including better grades in school and stronger self-esteem. We think that positive time together is well worth the minutes you’ll spend cleaning up when the meal is over.

Tasting Notes

We’re not advocating that you always say yes to the mess. If you’re at a restaurant or a friend’s house (or even at your own home under a time crunch), give baby foods that will have less stain-making impact (plain noodles, cheese, strips of bread, scrambled eggs, soft pieces of fruit rather than purées) and keep her portions small so there’s less to smear and toss.

It’s also okay to set some boundaries. As your baby transitions into toddler-hood, you can start teaching more table manners, like saying “please” and “thank you,” sitting still, using a napkin, and not saying things like “ewwwwww” or “yuck.” Just know that it can take years for kids to remember most of the rules most of the time.  

* Check with your doctor before serving any new foods to your baby: Most little ones take their first bites between four to six months, but regardless of age, he should be able to sit in a high chair and have good head control. The standard advice is to start with single-ingredient purées—wait three days before introducing another food to confirm your baby isn’t experiencing an allergic reaction such as rash, diarrhea, or vomiting. Never add salt or sweeteners.

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