Baby food pouches, whether premade or homemade, are a convenient way to offer food to babies and toddlers once they are introduced to solid foods. They are less messy, the child can feed themselves and they come in a great variety of flavors.
Infants usually get introduced to smooth pureed foods around 6 months old. Gradually, between 7-9 months, more textured foods are introduced such as textured purees (i.e. mashed banana, mashed potatoes) and dissolvable solids (i.e. yogurt melts, rice rusks).
Between 9-12 months, ground solids and soft diced solids (i.e. fruits and vegetables) are introduced and between 12-18 months toddlers are able to eat a diet of most table foods. Between 7-12 months is the time that chewing skills start to emerge and oral manipulation of lumpy, textured and more solid foods begin to take place.
According to this timeline, there may be some concerns with having food pouches as the primary foods that a child is exposed to, based on developmental and sensory skills.
Children need to develop fine motor function. One of the ways they do this is through play with food. Food is a safe way to introduce small things to pick up. Babies play with cereal and puffs (small pieces of food that melt easily in the mouth) to gain pincer grasp and other fine motor skills.
The use of utensils also helps kids learn to manipulate objects and feed themselves. Allowing a baby to play with a spoon – dipping it in food, bringing it to their mouth (sometimes the food makes it there, sometimes not – but it’s all a learning experience!) and using their lips or fingers to clear the food from the utensil builds important skills that will be used in all areas of play and work.
Children also need to develop oral motor function. When infants or young children eat from a pouch, they are essentially drinking their food. Drinking or sucking requires a forward to backward motion of the tongue. Not much else is required from an oral motor perspective.
The introduction of lumpy, textured, and solid foods requires the tongue to explore the food. The tongue may begin to move the foods from side to side, learn to form the food on the tongue in preparation to swallow and start to develop an emerging munching/chewing pattern. This is how kids learn to eat. We don’t expect babies to walk before they can crawl, just like we can’t expect them to be eating table foods by 12 months of age if they have been primarily fed smooth purees from pouches.
In order for the pureed food to come out the pouch, the texture has to be very smooth and liquid. There is little opportunity for a child/baby to explore variations of thickness and texture with these foods. This can contribute to oral aversions – where a child becomes afraid or unwilling to eat other textures (lumpy, crunchy, thick).
Children need to safely explore food with their hands to learn about its properties – they can feel how much pressure is needed to make the food squish or they can crumble the foods to see what will happen in their mouths. It can be scary to have a new food put in your mouth when you aren’t sure what will happen! Once a child can touch and feel a food, they are more apt to bring it to their mouth and eat it – knowing that they may have to chew or knowing that it may squirt or crumble. The ability to play with and discover the properties of foods is so important in having a child who is willing and able to tolerate various textures and varieties of food.
Infants and young children who are frequently fed from pouches are losing out on the developmental experiences with different textures and delay the oral motor experience. Studies have found that delaying the practice of texture progression can delay oral motor development and lead to feeding issues later in life. Infants and children should be given the opportunity to explore a variety of different foods and different textures. Chewing foods makes mealtime pleasurable through the development of food textures, taste and smell.
Meals as Family Time
Food is an important part of every culture. Almost every social event involves food and drink. People who have a limited food repertoire can sometimes feel excluded or, in severe cases, may cut themselves off from participating in certain events. Allowing a child to learn about and enjoy foods that are important to their family is essential. There is a window of opportunity where infants are more willing to experiment and add foods to their repertoire. If they are not given the chance to explore varieties of foods during the 6-12 month window, it can be a bit more difficult to encourage them to eat/explore a variety of foods as they get older.
Currently, there is little research into baby food pouches and their impact on oral motor development, fine motor development, social skills and potential feeding issues. Using pouches every now and again when you are on the go will not impact these skills. The concern stems from when pouches are being used to replace meals and are used multiple times a day. As therapists working with children on feeding skills, we understand the importance of food exploration, development of skills, and mealtime as a social event, to be enjoyed and savored!
Cheryl Boop, MS, OTR/L, has worked as an occupational therapist in pediatric settings since 2000. Since May 2016, she has been working with children and families through Homecare at Nationwide Children's Hospital, treating children with neurodevelopmental, feeding, sensory and fine motor difficulties.
Hailey Blosser, MA, CCC-SLP
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