Babies are notoriously messy eaters. They figure out right away that throwing, squishing, and spitting food is fun. It takes a while to get good hand/eye coordination going and as they practice there are plenty of misses resulting in food in the eyebrows, hair, ears... you name it. Then there is the lack of solid motor-planning which means cups and utensils often end up on the floor. Picking an object up does not require the same skills as putting it back down, and for some reason learning to place items back on the tray does not seem high on a baby’s priority list.
The first few times your baby ends up an absolute mess, it's kind of cute. You whip out the camera and preserve the memory for all time. Months upon months of glopped hair, soaked and stained shirts, and spills on the floor can become tedious. This same behavior in a restaurant or at a friend’s house could even be embarrassing. What’s a grown-up to do?
The Eating Arsenal
There’s no lack of bib styles out there, and after four kids I think I’ve tried them all. When I want to minimize the mess I go with the plastic full sleeve pocket bib that ties at the neck with a soft cotton collar bib underneath it for comfort as well as absorbing anything the dribbles down the neck. If your baby is not wearing short sleeves, roll up his sleeves before putting the bibs on.
Use simple hair clips to hold back your baby’s hair. You can do this for a boy too provided the macho police aren’t peeking in your windows during mealtime.
Position a spill mat under your baby’s highchair. We are using a Mimi the Sardine mat I picked up for half price on GreenBabyBargains.com. There are other brands that probably work just as well or even better.
Whenever possible (usually at lunchtime) I place a feeding mirror in front of Summer while she eats so that she can see herself eating. The speech therapist said this is supposed to help her visualize what she is doing. Make sure the mirror is out of reach, or that will end up on the floor too!
When I am planning on being right there the whole time, I use a place mat that we made for her that has a bowl/plate spot, utensil places, and a cup spot clearly marked on it. The mat does not adhere to the table so I have to be nearby to save the lunch bowl from ending up on the ceiling. The guides on the mat are to help her understand where to “set down” her eating tools. I only use this mat when I am specifically working with her on the concept of setting down her cup/utensils (instead of the usual Olympic shot-put method she has come to excel at.)
Keep a box of wipes or a damp cloth nearby so that you can wipe up spills as you go along. Keeping stray dribbles and chunks wiped up will keep them off the clothes, hair, and floor.
Consistent Caregiver Responses
After the first messy baby photo shoots, try to refrain from giving attention to messy eating. Don’t laugh or smile when your baby throws things, or blows raspberries with a mouth full of pureed peas. You don’t need to have a negative reaction either, a simple “No thank you, we don’t do that,” is fine.
Lessen Frustration by Teaching
Much of the mess is borne of frustration... baby wants more drink not more peaches and so the peaches go flying to the floor, etc. Teach your baby the signs for more and all done, and food and drink. Those words can make a big difference in how a meal goes. Your baby is going to let you know when she is done with her peas...she will spit the last ones out, or throw her spoon, or even swing her arms and knock the spoon out of your hands. If she knows the sign for all done, there is a good chance she’ll use it instead.
It is important for your baby to learn to wipe her mouth with a napkin or cloth. You want your baby to get used to this, to get in the habit of it. Children with Down syndrome often cannot feel little bits of food on their lips or cheeks/chin, and as they get older this could become a source of embarrassment or teasing. Teach your little one to always wipe her face after taking a couple bites of food.
As mentioned before, setting items down requires different skills than picking items up. Teach your child how to release his grip on his spoon or cup and to place it back on his tray. Many times babies throw their utensils simply because they haven’t the motor-plan for any other method of releasing them. You can teach “set down” by using a hand-over-hand motion with your baby and gently tapping the spoon/cup onto his tray so he can hear and feel as well as see where it goes.
A Little Help from You
Spend a couple minutes doing some mouth prep prior to feeding your baby. Use your z-vibe (or let your baby chew on his vibrating teether) for a minute to wake up his mouth muscles.
When you are doing the feeding, place the spoon in the center of your baby’s mouth with a little pressure so that his tongue forms a “bowl” around the spoon, and then let him close his mouth on the food before you remove the spoon. Don’t scrape the food off the spoon against the inside of his upper mouth as you remove the spoon. If he is self-feeding, you can use hand-over-hand motions to guide the spoon or cup appropriately.
When your baby is drinking from a cup or eating something of thin consistency, you can help him to keep in that last sip by placing your finger under his chin and supporting his mouth closure with some slight pressure. This will encourage him to swallow that last sip rather than let it rush out.
This Too Shall Pass
Learning to eat without a big mess is a process. Try not to get discouraged, and keep at it consistently... your little one will get there! One trick I use before each meal is to decide ahead of time how much mess I am willing to tolerate. From that decision stems my choices of how much to “bib up”, who gets to do the feeding, what she gets to eat, which cup we use, etc. For example if we are going out to eat, I make sure I have clips, a cover-all bib and neck bib, that I do the feeding and wiping, that she eats the least messy food on the menu, etc. If we are home and I am in a tolerant mood at lunchtime, she gets to practice self feeding with her own spoon and cup, and can eat a food that will stick to the utensil... I let her go at it on her own (and I even sneak pictures of her when she isn’t looking!)
Got a messy eater? Or maybe you have a feeding trick we need to know about? Tell us about it! Have you posted on this topic? Comment with the link and I will add it to the related posts.
Homemade Monday: Feeding Kit
Sheridan from Genetically Enhanced
The Quail from The Tao of Tulips
Pudge from The Adventures of Pudge and Zippy