Whenever your baby picks something up and tries to put it in their mouth, do you naturally find yourself taking it right back out again?
Maybe you’re afraid of germs, worried they’ll choke, or worried they’ll develop bad habits that will be hard to break in the future.
What most parents don’t realise is that babies need to mouth things. It’s part of their normal development. Babies who don’t mouth or aren’t given the opportunity to mouth toys and safe objects are more at risk of being fussy and picky eaters, are fussier in general, and are also at risk of developing fine motor delays.
Mouthing on their hands, toys and other safe objects provides babies with a range of benefits that are important for their overall development.
Before we jump into those specific benefits for your baby, mouthing is just one activity that your baby does to reach those crucial developmental milestones in their first year of life. If you want to learn all of the developmental milestones that you can expect in their first year of life, click here to download your copy of my free Developmental Milestones Checklist.
Benefits of Mouthing
Mouthing provides many benefits for your baby.
- It makes it easier to introduce solid food in the future
Mouthing makes introducing solids easier for a number of reasons.
When your baby is mouthing teethers and toys, they are getting exposed to a wide variety of textures, tastes, and temperatures. That means it’s going to be easier for them to accept textured food in the future.
- Mouthing helps to move the gag reflex back and desensitize it
Initially, your baby’s gag reflex is towards the front of their tongue. This means they’ll constantly gag on their fingers and toys when they are placed towards the front of the tongue because it is triggering that reflex.
But the constant mouthing of toys helps to shift that gag reflex from the front of the tongue towards the back. Constant mouthing helps to desensitize that gag reflex, and makes it harder to elicit. This means it will be easier for your baby to play and interact with food once it’s in their mouth, because they won’t be gagging as often.
- It helps to strengthen your baby’s jaw, cheek, and tongue muscles
When they’re mouthing toys, their cheeks, jaw, and tongue are moving in lots of fun different ways to explore that toy. This is important because it makes them stronger so that when your little one starts to eat food, they can more easily manipulate that food in their mouth.
- Mouthing helps build a stronger immune system
Mouthing on toys and on their hands can also help to build stronger immunity.
When they’re chewing on these things, it’s exposes them to the antigens in that environment, such as bacteria and viruses. They then travel down into their intestines, which triggers an immune response.
If a baby is being breastfed at that time or having some breast milk, then they are getting antibodies from that milk, which gives them some form of protection. This helps their body respond to those viruses and bacteria, while their immune system also provides support by developing its own antibodies.
Also, research is starting to show that failing to expose a child to the local viruses and bacteria in their environment can have long-term impacts, such as increasing the risk that they might have allergies, develop asthma, or have an autoimmune disease.
- Mouthing is extremely calming and soothing for babies
Mouthing is actually a reflexive behaviour that babies do inside the womb. They then continue to do this when they enter the world. That’s because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is, essentially, a system that helps to calm a baby down.
So your baby will often suck on items, or their hands and fingers, simply to help sooth themselves or to fall asleep.
- It’s one way that they explore and play
At around five to six months of age, a baby can grasp a toy and hold it for a long period of time, but they can’t isolate their fingers to poke or prod or stroke that toy.
But one thing they can do is move their mouth and their tongue. So they place those toys into their mouth, and then they explore the texture, the taste, and the temperature of the toy by moving around in their mouth.
As your baby gets older (towards the 12 month mark), they’ll actually decrease the amount of mouthing that they are doing because they can now isolate their fingers to explore toys instead of using their mouth.
Up to about 12 months of age, mouthing is predominantly the way they explore and play with toys.
- Mouthing helps relieve teething pain
One of the symptoms of teething pain is gum pain. A proven way to relieve that is by applying pressure to the gums. Babies are extremely clever, and they figure that out and start to put toys and objects into their mouth because it feels good.
This increases a lot just before a baby’s tooth erupts because they are looking for ways to relieve the pain.
As you can see, mouthing is an essential part of development that shouldn’t be avoided or prevented.
In addition to assisting their development in terms of the gag reflex, strengthening muscles, and building a strong immune system, it also helps with soothing, relieving teething pain, and is one way our babies play.