Supporting Speech and Language Developmental Milestones with Food
When we begin to consider whether our babies are ready for the introduction of solid food, we tend to focus more on the nutritional benefits of solids in their diet, and not so much on how it can support our babies with their speech development.
How does eating solid foods affect speech development?
Although it may not seem like it, there is a link between eating, or feeding, and the development of a child’s speech. How? When we feed babies solid food, they develop their oral motor skills which are the actions of the mouth, tongue, cheeks, and lips that help us to chew, bite, lick and swallow (Bean, 2013). Children begin to practice coordinating those muscles when they are eating, which are then used for speech production at different stages of their development.
When I was a director of an early childhood service, I noticed a toddler who experienced difficulties in his speech such as making out certain sounds. When he enrolled at our service, he drank a significant amount of milk from a bottle and in turn lost his appetite for solid foods. This led to a fussy eater who did not want to explore new textures in food, which affected the strengthening of the muscles in his mouth for actions — many of us adults take for granted — such as chewing. Until that point in my career, I overlooked the impact of solids on a child’s speech and language development and now as a mother, I’ve tried to provide as many opportunities as possible for my children to safely explore foods once they had demonstrated signs that they were ready to transition to solids. You may find that an older child who is experiencing speech difficulties may have also experienced feeding complexities as a baby (Queensland Health, 2022). In these instances, it is important to seek the advice of a health professional and speech pathologist.
When to start solid food for baby?
Every child is different, and it can be difficult to determine if you are a first-time parent, but the best thing to do is tune into your baby. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the current recommendation is to introduce solids around the 6-month milestone – and continue to feed them milk — but not before 4 months (World Health Organization [WHO], 2022). Follow your child’s lead and you will notice that your baby will demonstrate signs of readiness such as:
Follow your child’s lead and you will notice that your baby will demonstrate signs of readiness such as:
- Showing excitement for food and demonstrating interest in your food by reaching out to your plate and trying to grab food during mealtimes.
- Showing signs of hunger after their bottle of milk because they are not full or satisfied.
- Open their mouth when they are offered food.
- Sitting upright in a highchair (neck and back unsupported). Your little one should be able to hold his/her head up on their own.
- Your baby does not push food out of their mouth. Some young babies have a “tongue thrust reflex” and do this when they are given food too early.
Watch this video to learn more about the tongue thrust reflect (also called "extrustion reflex").
Speak to a health professional to find out which foods to avoid when you and your baby are ready to try solids for the first time.
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice
Introducing new textures in solid foods
Different textures in food will require different oral motor skills, so when you are introducing foods into your baby’s diet, make sure to introduce various textures as your baby’s oral skills and feeding begin to develop. If your baby is only ever eating pureed and mashed foods as they grow, they are unable to strengthen the muscles used for crunching and chewing – particularly the tongue and jaw. Chewing helps develop the use of the tongue – skills in the biting of foods also exercise the facial muscles and these complex skills for babies provide the basis for more complex speech skills to emerge (Webber et. al, 2021).
Tips to help your little one develops language through food!
(Beyond puree and mash)
Once your baby is ready for more lumpy foods
- Begin with foods that your little one likes to eat!
- Offer lots of fruits and vegetable
- Slowly increase the size of the food or lumps while at the same time decreasing the mashed or pureed food
- Serve food in bite-sized pieces (but not too small – you still want to encourage them to chew and bite through food properly and not swallow them whole).
- Modeling – eat with your little one
- Praise them for trying new foods and textures
- Always supervise when they are eating
- Talk to them during mealtimes about how the food tastes and what it looks like
- Create a safe environment that supports mealtimes
- At 12 months start using cups instead of bottles
- Make a mess!! Let your babies explore foods with their hands
- Introduce food in different textures, sizes, temperatures, and colors.
- Make the necessary adaptations to your little one’s meal so they are eventually eating the foods you are eating at mealtimes.
- Respect your little one’s developmental stage – do not rush them
If your child is refusing to eat specific foods because of their texture or is experiencing difficulties in feeding it is important that you seek guidance and professional advice. Speech development is connected to other parts of the oral structure and so eating and the process of it is not only beneficial for their nutrition, but also to speech and their overall development.
Starting solids is such a significant milestone for your baby and as parents, we naturally have so many concerns and questions about the best way of doing things. This is a great opportunity to form a deeper connection with your baby. Take your time and tune into your baby!
- Bean, A. (2013). Oral-Motor Skills. In: Volkmar, F.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1698-3_1685
- Queensland Health. (2002). When should your child see a speech pathologist? Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/when-why-child-speech-pathologist-speaking-language-feeding-development-milestones
- Webber, C., Blissett, J., Addessi, E., Galloway, A., Shapiro, L. & Farrow C. (2021). An infant-led approach to complementary feeding is positively associated with language development. Matern Child Nutrition. 17(4), 13206. https://www.doi.org/10.1111/
- World Health Organization. (2022). Breastfeeding. Retrieved September 12, 2022, from, https://www.who.int/health-topics/breastfeeding#tab=tab_1