40% of parents surveyed by WaterWipes don’t allow their babies to play with their food, and over a third feel stressed and anxious if their babies do play with their food, and prefer food-play to be carried out at playgroup or with a child minder. Why should this be worrying? Well because sensory play reduces food fussiness, both in infancy and later childhood. How does it do that? By dampening down the over-sensitive response to new experience.
Four senses are involved in sensory play; taste, touch, smell and the look of food.
There are also two stages of ‘fussiness’:-
- when introducing solid foods
- around 20 months, all toddlers go into a food refusal stage called neophobia (the fear of new foods).
- The more tastes introduced at the introduction of solid foods then the more likely the baby is to get used to different tasting foods. Apart from the taste of sweet foods all other taste preferences are learned, and the earlier this learning happens the easier it is.
- The more food smells the baby experiences then the more they are likely to accept new tastes; the taste of a food is very much determined by its smell.
- The more messy a baby gets around food, that is getting the food on their hands and on their face, the more likely they will be to pick up and try new foods. This is because the touch of sticky foods dampens down the early sensitivity in newborns to touch.
- The more babies touch and hold, squash and mash food, the more they will get used to the smell, the touch and the feel of food. They need to get used to both the smell of food and the way that it feels if they are going to eat it.
- The more babies see the whole food that they are being given, the more likely they are to later recognise what they taste as a food that is safe. Willingness to eat food depends on recognising a food as ‘safe to eat’.
- When they get to the food refusal stage toddlers more likely to try foods if they can touch food through play; sensory play reduces the anxiety that toddlers might feel when faced with a new food.
- Playing games which involve pieces of food mean that the toddler is more likely to be concentrating on the game rather than the disliked food. They will then be happy to touch new foods and later try them
- Sensory play can just involve looking at pictures of food in a book, seeing a food and naming it will still help when trying to get the toddler to eat it.
- If toddlers are around food when it is being prepared they will get used to the smell of the food and the way that it looks. Where all senses are involved then toddlers are more likely to try new foods, and eventually eat a wider range diet.
- Even a shopping trip can involve sensory play, foods can be named and searched for in the supermarket . Searching for food (fruit or vegetables) in the supermarket means that the toddler has to touch, smell, and look at the food. All of these things will increase willingness to try that food.
Dr Gillian Harris is working with WaterWipes to encourage parents to have fun with sensory food play during the weaning phase. For further tips and sensory food play games to try out at home, visit www.waterwipes.com