3 Reasons to Start Textured Finger Foods for Baby
It can be hard to figure out exactly when the best time to start finger foods is and when to advance in textures (especially if purees are all your baby knows).
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?
As a pediatric feeding expert and dietitian, I recommend introducing finger foods to your baby as early on as possible.
I'm going to talk about all the benefits and why it's so good in just a second, but just to clarify, when I say early as possible, this means starting as soon as your baby shows the signs and skills that they are ready and willing to accept finger foods!
Signs Baby is Ready for Finger Foods
These signs include:
- Ability to safely swallow a smooth puree without any difficulty or excessive gagging
- Reaching for objects or pieces of food and bringing them to their mouth with precision
- Ability to sit upright with little assistance
Usually, this is around the 6-7 month mark.
But wait...that barely leaves time for any purees!
Well...that’s sort of the point.
You see, once you’ve established a safe swallow and 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.
So for some babies, purees need to offered for a few weeks before they get the hang of it. For others...it may only take a couple days!
Again, this usually means that you can start introducing finger foods between 6-7 months of age.
Now 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 are developmentally ready to be 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.
Benefits of Introducing Finger Foods AND a Variety of Textures
Benefit #1: It helps develop oral motor skills
Finger foods early on help your baby to develop stronger oral motor skills.
- They help your baby actually learn how to bite off a piece of food, and how to chew that food (and develop better jaw strength).
- They even help them learn how to use their tongue to maneuver particles 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.
The more variety in the texture of the food the better too! This helps them see what they need to do to manage and maneuver a thick texture, a lumpy texture, a spongy, crispy, or chewy texture.
Nudging your baby through the spectrum of textures will help increase acceptance of ALL types of foods and bypass texture troubles down the road.
Benefit #2: It helps reduce gagging
Another benefit to introducing finger foods earlier on is they will help gradually desensitize your baby's sensitive gag reflex.
The gag reflex starts off positioned at the front of their mouth, usually right around the front ⅓ of the tongue. This is why anytime something touches the front of your baby’s tongue 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 be accustomed to having safe textures further back in their mouth, over the molar area (which is where food is chewed) and spread over more surface area on the tongue, which allows that gag reflex to move further back over time.
This makes 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 do the opposite and make babies hesitant to try new foods later on.
Benefit #3: It reduces the potential for picky eating
Introducing finger foods and a variety of textures early on allows your baby to experience eating with all five senses -- this promotes less 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's like on their mouth, cheek and squished between their hands. That whole sensory experience and food play is actually really important for your baby to get to know food on a more intimate level.
Think about when they're only being spoon fed for a long time...they miss out on so much sensory stimulation. Food goes right from the spoon to the center of their tongue, will little opportunity to smell the food or see the food, let alone touch or play with it.
Then when the time comes that you finally offer finger foods much later on (or new foods in general), 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.
Give your baby lots of exposure to variety in texture and flavor to reduce the likelihood of picky eating later on!
(And if you're reading this thinking, "shoot! I have a picky eater in my house already." Don't worry! We can work on that too. Start here.)
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 are reading your baby’s cues and feel confident and educated in 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 okay! The beauty is you can jump in at any time and start offering that practice once you see they are ready and you are willing,