Guide to Baby Taking Big Bites & Overstuffing
While you love that your baby is eager to eat, maybe you’ve noticed that they’re a little too eager. Meaning they take bites that are too big, too fast, and too much – basically a mini-Hoover vacuum at the table. We’ll discuss why babies take big bites or put too much food in their mouth and 10 strategies to help. Recommended information for ages 6-36 months.
Medically reviewed and co-written by Lauren Braaten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT).
Baby Taking Big Bites
Taking big bites of food, overstuffing, or even lovingly called, “shoveling” often stresses parents out. Basically, baby or toddler is putting too much food in their mouth, and it can impact chewing and swallowing safely.
Overstuffing can be common in babies and toddlers, and may happen anywhere between 6-18 months, depending on the child. Like many things with little ones, taking too big of bites seems to be a phase. But why does it happen? Can you prevent your baby from overstuffing their mouth or help them slow down when they are shoveling food?
Frequently Asked Questions
Although these two concepts have some similarities, overstuffing seems to involve putting larger quantities of food in the mouth, often at a quick pace. Kids often seem to attempt to swallow food with overstuffing, but sometimes the sheer amount of food in their mouth makes it difficult. In contrast, food pocketing happens when your baby holds food in their mouth for a longer period of time but does not attempt to swallow the food.
Overstuffing can happen whether you use a baby-led weaning (BLW) or a traditional weaning (TW) approach to feeding. Often babies who use BLW overstuff earlier in their self-feeding journey, while babies who use TW show this behavior a little later, around 10-18 months, as they start getting more practice with finger foods (and it’s hard to quickly shovel in purees from a spoon when baby doesn’t have smooth hand-eye coordination yet!). This is not to say either approach is wrong, you just might notice this phase at different times.
Taking too big of bites and overstuffing can be signs of decreased sensory awareness in the mouth, but this alone does not mean that your child has a sensory processing disorder (SPD).
SPD is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. (SPD has gained recognition in recent years but is still widely debated and is not currently an official diagnosis.) If you have concerns about how your baby or child is handling sensory input across many senses AND it is impacting their day-to-day functioning, please discuss with your pediatrician.
Why Babies and Toddlers Take Big Bites
There can be a few different reasons why your baby is taking big bites or overstuffing their mouth. One reason might simply be lack of practice. Young babies often get so excited when exploring and tasting foods that they don’t realize it’s too much. With repeated exposure and practice, your baby should start to understand the boundaries of their mouth better.
Another reason for overstuffing may be related to sensory processing, or specifically decreased sensory awareness in the mouth. 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, your baby can’t quite accurately sense or feel what’s going on inside her mouth. (This can also be a reason why kids pocket food.)
With decreased oral sensory awareness, it’s like your baby is thinking, “Whoa, dude…taking small bites gives me a little sensation in my mouth, but if I take bigger bites, or even better…MORE of these big bites, I can finally feel my food! Awesome!” (Because, you know, that’s how babies talk). Without an input to know where the food is, it can be difficult to develop good chewing and swallowing skills.
10 Strategies to Help Decrease Overstuffing and Taking Big Bites
There are a variety of ways you can help your baby take smaller bites and avoid overstuffing their mouth. Here are several of our favorites:
- Let baby explore a variety of teething toys. You can work on this before you even introduce solids to your baby. Giving your baby a variety of shapes and textures to mouth and chew on will help develop oral sensory awareness.
- Provide a footrest. Sitting in a high chair or booster seat with a footrest gives your child good postural support. If your child feels stable, comfortable, and safe when eating, they’ll be less likely to rush through a meal.
- Model good eating habits. Show your child how to take small bites, bite off larger pieces, chew, and take pauses in-between bites.
- Offer sips of water. Frequent sips of water from an open cup or straw cup can help your baby wash down food and slow down the pace of eating. Model taking drinks of water with meals yourself.
- Give cues. Stay calm and tell them what they can do, such as “That bite was too big. You can spit some out right here.” Or “It looks like you have too much food in your mouth. You can take some out and try a smaller bite.” Older toddlers and kids can understand cues, such as “Oops, that was a dinosaur-sized bite. Let’s take a mouse-sized bite instead.”
- Help pace them. Try limiting the size, pace and amount of bites on your child’s plate. You can always experiment with allowing a few more bites towards the end of the meal once they’ve had a chance to fill their tummy with some food. Older toddlers and kids (3+ years) can try a child-safe food pick or special utensil to pick up food, which can slow down bites.
- Schedule regular meal and snack times. Kids might overstuff or take too big of bites because they are overly hungry. Keeping 2-3 hours between eating opportunities supports coming to the table with some appetite, but not extreme hunger.
- Increase sensory input. Alternating bites of softer, easier to overstuff foods with bites of crunchy or chewy foods can help your baby figure out where the boundaries are in their mouth. Slightly spicy, sour, or colder foods can help “wake up” the mouth and increase sensory awareness.
- Show them how to spit. Some parents might feel a little nervous with this suggestion, but spitting food out is actually a skill your child needs to know how to do. Model how to spit out a small amount of your own food with your tongue, and show your child where to spit (in your hand or on a plate).
- Practice taking bites from a bigger piece. Yes, this might sound counterintuitive. But we’re talking about practice with taking a small bite off of a larger piece of food. Hold a larger piece of food for your baby or toddler to take a bite from, such as a slice of toast cut in half. Model how to bite pieces off as well. This skill is helpful when your child starts eating harder-to-chew foods that require holding, biting and pulling with their teeth.
When to Seek Professional Help
Taking big bites of food or overstuffing is typically a phase that will pass with time and parental monitoring. But if you find that your baby or toddler continues to struggle even after implementing these strategies, talk with your pediatrician. They can refer to you to a provider with knowledge in pediatric feeding and swallowing, such as an occupational therapist (OT) or a speech-language pathologist (SLP).