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The Eight Senses of Sensory Weaning

Learning to eat is the most complex sensory task that your baby has to do in his first year of life and it’s all managed and organised by the brain. There are eight different senses that coordinate with each other when your baby eats. Their brain is dynamic, it’s constantly changing, and improving in response to the information it picks up via your baby’s senses.

Image showing child in highchair with messy weaning food

The environment in which your baby grows up in has a significant impact on their developing brain. By giving them lots of opportunities to use all eight of their senses, you will be helping to create a very complex map of connections in the brain, ultimately leading to improved skills, intellect and even influencing behaviour.

The amazing thing is that you have the opportunity to do this safely and easily with each and every meal. In fact, it’s far safer for your baby to get sensory experiences with food than it is with other activities such as playing in the sand pit or using finger paints. This is because developmentally, 6-12 month olds are at a stage where they are exploring with their mouths!

Baby in highchair with coverall weaning bib

The eight senses

Let’s take a deeper look at the eight senses that are engaged as part of Sensory Weaning

  1. Visual (sight)
  2. Tactile (touch, textures)
  3. Auditory (sound)
  4. Olfactory (smell)
  5. Gustory (taste)
  6. Proprioception (location/orientation of self in space e.g movement)
  7. Vestibular (balance and orientation of self in relation to gravity)
  8. Interoception (the ability to read and interpret internal bodily signal e.g feeling hunger)

The first five senses of these senses are experienced externally – i.e. outside of the body and the last three are senses experienced internally, from inside your baby’s body.

First let’s take a look at the five senses that are experienced external to the body:

Child with mum at mealtime wearing weaning coverall bib
Rainbow display of weaning fruits and vegetables

The first step to eating is visual tolerance. When babies learn to eat they have to learn initially to be in the same room as the food and see it from further away. Gradually the food  comes closer and is eventually placed on their highchair tray. Simply moving food towards your baby helps with his visual sensory development.

What you can do at home:
Cook meals with your baby in the kitchen with you so she begins to experience food from all directions.
• Serve foods that are visually appealing by using lots of different colours – fruits and vegetables are fantastic as you can create a rainbow of colours!
• Talk about the foods and their colours as your child is picking them up and exploring them.
• Make foods look nice, presentation is really helpful as even babies ‘eat with their eyes’

At around 5 and a half months, feeding becomes a voluntary process rather than a reflex. Up until this point, if a spoon or food was to be placed on your baby’s tongue, it would automatically be pushed back out as a protective reflex to prevent her from choking.

At around 5 and a half months babies start to learn how to control this reflex and so pushing the spoon or food out becomes voluntary. The muscles in his tongue are strengthening so he is able to move food from side to side and up and down.

At a similar age the gag reflex starts to move back. When a baby is born, this is right at the front of their mouths and so placing an unfamiliar object in their mouths would have made them sick. But at around 5 and a half months it begins to move back.

Exposure to a variety of textures helps develop your baby’s brain because they are experiencing different sensations which leads to acceptance of a wider range of food textures as they grow.

Toddlers sometimes refuse food because of texture and often this is because of the lack of exposure they’ve had to different foods as babies. Experiencing a variety of different textures also encourages dexterity as well as cognitive development i.e. their thinking, exploring and problem solving skills.

Messy weaning with coverall bib and highchair tray
Messy weaning with coverall bib and highchair tray

What you can do at home:
• Eat similar foods with your baby and over emphasise biting and chewing so that she copies you, learning what to do.
• If your child is sick, don’t panic. It’s important to keep calm, they have just pushed the food in too far and have triggered the gag reflex. Stay bright and cheerful and just say “oops…you put that (celery stick) in too far”.
• Let your child play with their food, give a mixture of textures at the same time including purees and finger foods and let them explore them at their own pace on the highchair tray. You can spoon feed too if you are choosing to wean traditionally.
• Get messy, wearing the food is part of learning to eat it!
• Don’t clean your child until after the meal is over (unless food goes in their eyes)
• Don’t use the spoon to scrape food off your baby’s face. Leave it there till the end of the meal
• To hold your baby’s attention for longer, consider adding clean utensils mid-way through the meal such as paint brushes, toys or different spoons.
• Encourage messy play with foodstuffs outside of mealtimes once or twice a week. A water table is a quick, easy (and relatively clean) activity which will also encourage her sensory development.
• Fabulous food for encouraging tactile exploration are purees or any sort of yoghurt, jelly, whipped cream, cooked spaghetti, cooked rice, dry cereals like oats or Cheerios, flour and even crushed ice!

Baby wearing disposable weaning bib in highchair

This is the sense of hearing and actually many foods make a sound inside your body when you eat them – listen out next time you eat! When your baby first starts solids, irrespective of the method you choose, the sound that the food makes is very similar to the sound that milk makes when they drink and so babies easily cope. However, when weaning progresses and they begin to chew their food before swallowing (at around 8-1 0 months), the noise that food makes changes with every chew as the pieces get smaller.

What you can do at home:
Make the mealtime environment nice and calm, for example you could play soothing music
• Talk to your baby about the different noises that food makes such as “Did you hear that Melty Puff make a crunching sound when we squashed it?”

The sense of smell is so important in helping your baby learn to eat solid food and it is the sense of smell combined with the sense of taste which produces the sensation of flavour. Babies can be quite good at telling us when an unfamiliar smell is not liked, after a few seconds of having the food in their mouth they begin to taste it. It’s not immediate. If it’s disliked they will turn their heads away from it, make a funny face and sometimes their eyes might water!
Don’t be concerned about this, anything unfamiliar is going to have this reaction and the more they are exposed to these foods the more quickly they will be accepted.

What you can do at home:
• Offer new foods alongside familiar foods
• Keep the food there in front of them, even if they have made a funny face. Encourage them to explore the food with their hands.

Family mealtime with weaning baby in highchair
Messy weaning baby with highchair  tray and coverall bib
Weaning foods on spoons

Babies are born with more than 2500 taste buds and they are more active towards the back of their mouths which is helpful because this is where milk is deposited when they are breast feeding or feeding from a bottle.

The sweet taste buds are the most mature which has an evolutionary purpose in order to encourage babies to latch when they’re born. After sweet, salty foods are preferred and there is a dislike for bitter and sour flavours as these are the least well developed.

The sensation of flavour is made up of a combination of two senses, taste and smell.

In the last trimester of pregnancy, the amniotic fluid is flavoured by the mother’s diet and so babies born to mums who ate strong tasting foods such as garlic or chilli respond more positively to these foods too.

Babies who are breastfed experience flavour via their mother’s breast milk, what she eats passes through and so breastfeeding facilitates acceptance of new flavours. Bottle fed babies have only ever tasted one thing and so often need additional encouragement with new flavours.

 

What you can do at home:
• Babies will eat more of the foods that are familiar to them so repeatedly offering the same foods is important in terms of getting them to become liked.
• As weaning progresses, keep offering new flavours, don’t get stuck in a rut of having the same meals routinely.
• Make sure you offer more than one flavour at each meal. Variety within the meal will increase her acceptance of new foods. This is why having a sweet course after the main meal can be helpful as weaning progresses.
• When you offer a new food make sure that there is an accepted food already on her plate too as babies are more likely to accept a new flavour in the presence of a familiar flavour.

 

Now we can look at the 3 senses that are experienced internally:

This term describes your baby’s sense of body awareness, or how she notices her position, location and movements in her body. One of the signs of readiness for weaning is your baby’s ability to sit up and have good head control. This is because she’s mastered the art of having a stable base in order to give all her attention to the job in hand – learning about food and eating!

What you can do at home:

  • Choose a highchair that has good support around your baby’s waist, knees and feet. These should all be at 90 degree angles. However, if you’ve already bought one that doesn’t quite fit the bill you can compromise:
    – Her feet must be supported by a foot rest and not left dangling in mid-air. Stack up a pile of books or boxes to create a makeshift foot rest.
    – If she has too much wiggle room around her waist, roll up a couple of towels and wedge these in between her side and the side of the highchair.
    – Use a cushion if she needs more height. Always make sure she’s strapped into the highchair and if necessary, buy a set of baby reins to do the job.
    – Your baby should feel well supported in her highchair, almost like it’s giving her a hug. This is called ‘deep pressure’ in the sensory world!
Baby in highchair with tray and coverall bib
Mum feeding weaning baby in highchair with coverall bib

This term refers to your baby’s sense of balance and where she is in relation to the ground or gravity. Babies who struggle with this sense might be those who hate coming down the stairs, or cry when going on a baby swing.

When it comes to eating, your baby needs to combine proprioception and vestibular senses meaning she needs to be able to sit up, lean forward, open her mouth to accept the food, close her mouth and manage the sense of movement her head creates with every chew and swallow.

This gets harder and more complicated as textures progress through weaning and is why baby-led weaners eat very little at the start of weaning. They simply haven’t learned how to do it yet.

What you can do at home:
• Give them their own pot and spoon and allow your baby to practice moving food from the pot to their mouths. Mini yoghurt pot sized containers work really well.
• Smile and offer lots of praise and encouragement at mealtimes if you have a little one who struggles with their vestibular sense. You need to provide reassurance that all ok.

 

This is the ability to tell the difference between different feelings inside your body such as hunger, feeling sick, thirsty or having a tummy ache, all of which have to be learned by your baby.

What you can do at home:
• When you can, tell your baby what they are feeling, when they’ve finished their meal , tell them they are full, if they are seeking out a drink tell them they are thirsty.
• Baby signing can be helpful, when they ask for more during a meal, tell them that they are still hungry.

Weaning baby in highchair with disposable bib

So, now we have taken a look at all eight of the senses engaged in Sensory Weaning, it’s clear that weaning is a complex business with lots for baby to learn and develop along the way!

As well as sensory integration, babies also use a whole host of other systems in their bodies when learning how to eat including motor skills and cognitive development.

We hope this guide helps to give you lots of ideas of how to support your baby through their weaning journey along with our full range of weaning products and bibs which are specifically designed to take the mess and stress out of mealtimes and allow you and your baby to enjoy the experience!

Why not take a look at our full range here to find out more and take the mess out of your Sensory Weaning journey!

 

 

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