Guide to Food Pocketing in Babies – What is it and 10 Strategies to Help
Food pocketing sounds like something a cute little squirrel should be doing to build up their acorn stash for the winter, not your 9-month-old, right? We’ll explain what food pocketing is, why it can happen, and offer 10 practical strategies to help if your child pockets food. For ages 6 + months.
Medically reviewed and co-written by Lauren Braaten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT).
What is Food Pocketing
Food pocketing happens when your baby chews and holds food in their mouth for an expanded period of time but does not swallow the food. Common places to pocket or “hide” food are inside the cheeks, the front of the mouth, or on the roof of the mouth.
As a parent, imagine your surprise if you went to brush your baby’s teeth at night and found a chunk of food from dinner over an hour ago! However, keep in mind that not all babies and toddlers will pocket food. For some babies, this is just a phase that usually occurs around 6-12 months of age. This is right in the midst of when your baby is learning to mash and chew foods.
Typically, food pocketing will happen less and less as your little one gets more experience with foods. Baby will start to develop a better sense of boundaries in their mouth. Oral motor skills, like jaw strength and tongue movements, will improve to help move food where it needs to go. But what things contribute to food pocketing? And how can you help your baby or toddler move past it?
Frequently Asked Questions
Kids can pocket food at any age, but it typically occurs more often in babies and toddlers who are just learning to chew. While pocketing food can be a phase, it may last longer for some babies and toddlers compared to others. Some toddlers may pocket food beyond 12 months, especially with harder to chew textures, such as meats.
Although pocketing food is not dangerous in the moment when baby is sitting in their high chair, the risk of choking may come into play after the meal, when baby is crawling or moving around and forgets that the food is still in their mouth. In addition, the longer food sits on baby or toddler’s teeth or gums, the risk for tooth decay and dental carries increases.
While children with autism may have atypical eating behaviors, like hypersensitivity to food textures or food pocketing, these behaviors can also happen in plenty of kids who do not have autism. Food pocketing by itself cannot determine whether or not a child has autism.
Why do Babies, Toddlers and Children Pocket Food
There can be many different reasons why food pocketing happens. We’ll discuss a few of the most common ones below.
First, it might be related to sensory processing. Sensory processing involves how our brains receive input through the senses (hearing, taste, touch, smell, sight, balance, body awareness, and internal sensations) from our nervous system. Without efficient sensory processing, baby doesn’t have the awareness to feel where the food is in their mouth. They might “lose” the food inside their mouths instead of swallowing it.
On the flip side of sensory processing, some babies may pocket food because they like the sensation it provides. Storing or pushing a piece of food into the side of the mouth can activate a “stretch” sensation in the sensory receptors, which some babies like.
Another reason for food pocketing can be related to weak oral motor skills. If your baby doesn’t yet have the strength and coordination to completely chew and swallow foods, it might get “stuck” in a pocket of the mouth. This is why it’s important to provide foods that are appropriate for your child’s skill level and age.
A third reason might be that baby has learned that swallowing is uncomfortable or painful. They might be pocketing food in order to avoid swallowing. This could be due to something as simple and temporary as a sore throat, or it could be related to swollen tonsils, adenoids, or a history of reflux.
10 Strategies to Help if Your Child Pockets Food
- Cue baby on what to do. It can be as simple as saying “Uh-oh, it looks like you forgot a piece of food in your mouth. You can chew and swallow, so it goes down to your tummy.”
- Show and tell. Place a small piece of food in your mouth. With a little bit of exaggerated movements, demonstrate and explain how to use your tongue to remove the food. You could do this in front of a mirror or bring a small mirror to the table, especially for older toddlers or kids with decreased sensory awareness.
- Encourage a sip. Using a drink of water or milk can help clear food from the mouth and wash it down. An open cup works better for this than a straw or sippy cup, since it lets liquid spread around the mouth and cover more area.
- Remind them it’s okay to spit out food. Some toddlers are already pros at this, so use with discretion. Other toddlers might have been taught (by well-meaning daycare teachers or grandparents) that it’s not polite to spit out food. But if the food is a new or harder-to-chew texture, they might be pocketing to avoid swallowing it. Remind them that they can spit it out and show them with a piece of your food. Give this option minimal attention and keep your expressions neutral in order to avoid making a game of it.
- Maintain a tooth-brushing routine. Brushing the gums, teeth, and tongue twice a day is good for oral hygiene, as well as increasing sensory awareness. Using an electric toothbrush will give added sensory input through vibration.
- Alternate textures of foods. If your baby tends to pocket meats or soft veggies, serve a crunchy food, such as apple sticks or veggie straws at the same meal. Encourage alternating bites from soft to crunchy to increase sensory awareness in the mouth.
- Add a sauce or dip. Foods with slightly drier textures, such as chicken, pork or bread, may be challenging for some kids to chew and swallow, unless they have some added moisture. Consider marinating meats or serving with dips to soften these foods a bit.
- Increase sensory input. Slightly spicy, tart, or sour foods can “wake up” the mouth and even increase saliva flow, which may help with swallowing instead of pocketing. Examples include tart or sour fruits, such as lemons, limes, oranges, or raspberries. You can also try pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut or kefir. Or adjust the temperature of foods and drinks, such as ice-cold water, frozen yogurt or fruit that’s been popped in the freezer for a few minutes.
- Play games. Make silly faces in the mirror with your baby or toddler by sticking out your tongue, puffing your cheeks, or making a kissy face. Or put a dab of applesauce, yogurt or pudding on the corners of the mouth or on the lips and encourage your child to lick it off. Older toddlers and kids can blow bubbles, whistles, or play with a harmonica. These games can strengthen mouth muscles and improve coordination.
- Be patient. Intervene only if necessary. Ideally, using some of the above strategies would have worked to get food out of the mouth. Sometimes a little extra patience is necessary. However, we advise being very cautious any time you intervene by putting your fingers in your baby’s mouth. This can increase the risk of choking by possibly pushing the food farther back into the mouth. It’s also not a pleasant experience to have someone sticking their fingers in your mouth. At this point, we’d advise picking up your baby, bringing them to the bathroom mirror, and asking them to open their mouth. From here, you can try to “brush” or sweep out the food with a toothbrush, something that baby is used to having in their mouth. Gently slide the toothbrush in along the inner cheek and try to slide the food out.
When to get Professional Help
While food pocketing is usually just a phase, you may find yourself wondering if additional support is needed. It may be time to discuss concerns with your pediatrician if you regularly find food in your baby or toddler’s mouth after one or more meals a day, for more than a couple of months. Try to keep note of what type and texture of foods seem to get pocketed in your baby’s mouth.
Your pediatrician can refer you to a provider with knowledge of pediatric feeding and swallowing, such as an occupational therapist or a speech-language pathologist.