My 2-year-old has always been a good eater for the most part. He eats independently with a fork and spoon and has a great appetite. Although he does have one problem: he always ends up with food outside his mouth. I understand he is still perfecting his self-feeding skills and certain foods can be messy, but sometimes food gets to his chin because he hasn't taken any bites in several minutes. It became clear to me that he must be keeping some food in his mouth instead of swallowing it, causing it to come back out. I wondered how I could help my son stop doing this, so I asked some experts in child feeding problems for answers.
Why does my toddler not swallow all of their food?
There can be different reasons why a toddler might not be swallowing all of his food. Alison Oniboni, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech language pathologist said that toddlers are still developing physical strength and coordination skills that are needed for effective chewing and swallowing. "Any food that remains in the mouth or is spit out accidentally is most likely caused by mouth muscles that are still developing in terms of strength as well as coordination, just like any other muscle group," Oniboni said. Another possible reason some toddlers may fail to swallow all of their food is due to sensory sensitivities. "There's the possibility of food being spit out or held in the mouth due to preference of taste or texture if it seems to be more purposeful," said Oniboni.
By what age will my toddler start swallowing all of their food?
Depending on your toddler's age, you may have to endure watching them store food in their mouths for a while. "At age 2, children should have all the oral motor skills to eat more like adults," said Christine Miroddi, MA, CCC-SLP, founder of Foodology Feeding Therapy. "They should be bringing food to their mouth, using utensils, and drinking from an open cup and a straw without difficulty, therefore decreasing mealtime messiness."
If you find that your 2-year-old hasn't hit these milestones yet, Oniboni assured that there's nothing to worry about. "There are a lot of factors that play a role into meeting suggested milestones, so it's not always cause for concern if it takes your little one a bit longer to develop their oral motor skills," Oniboni said. However, Oniboni also cautioned that if a large amount of food is consistently being spit out after age 2, early intervention may be needed to assess and improve the toddler's oral motor skills.
How can I help my toddler improve their chewing and swallowing?
In some cases, a toddler's chewing and swallowing skills may just take more time to fully develop. If you find your child struggling with this, Oniboni recommends trying a variety of at-home techniques. Some of these exercises you can do with your toddler include trying different types of spoons, chewing a variety of textures, practicing blowing bubbles, or using a straw. All of these things help build up the jaw and mouth muscles. As most toddlers move closer to age 4, their skills should improve on their own.
If you're worried that your child's feeding problems are more serious, Miroddi recommends having a professional evaluation done by an occupational therapist and speech language pathologist to find a solution. These therapists specialize in providing specialized therapy to address feeding issues in young children. "Determining the root cause of feeding difficulties helps to have better outcomes and less time in therapy," Miroddi said. So if your toddler is storing food in their mouth while eating, it's likely normal, but it never hurts to consult a specialist who can provide personalized strategies to improve your child's eating if it gets out of hand.