Updated: Oct 24, 2020
We are going to go through 5 different myths of introducing solids and feeding an infant in the next few posts. Let's start with one of our favorites because of how often it's cited and because of how off base it is.
MYTH ONE: “Wait until the tongue thrust reflex is gone before starting solids.”
Not entirely sure where this little bit of advice comes from, but we've seen and heard it all over the place. On a quick Google search of "feeding recommendations" most of the main parenting sites mention this as a recommendation. None have a citation, mention research, or clinical reasoning to support this. It's even suggested on the AAP's Bright Futures website.
Just as Delaney & Arvedson (2008) found: “oral skill development as texture changes are made through the second half of the first year of life is an under studied phenomenon" we are also not able to find anything in the literature to consistently indicate when the tongue thrust reflex integrates, and whether it's integration is essential for transitioning to solids.
Due to a lack of scientific knowledge, we delve into the literature regarding motor learning and critical periods of feeding development.
What we know: the tongue thrust reflex is PROTECTIVE.
If baby takes something into the mouth that he/she can't handle, the reflex is triggered and the baby's tongue protrudes (or sticks out) which pushes whatever is in the mouth, back out.
Reflexes allow a baby's body to do movements that the baby can't otherwise do, which helps the baby to learn skills. For example, a baby uses the grasp reflex to hold onto a finger or a toy BEFORE they can do this intentionally. The very young baby doesn't look at her parent's finger and think, "I want to hold their hand!" Instead, she doesn't have to think about it at all- if her parent's finger (or a toy or blanket) brushes the inside of her hand, her fingers close around it. This is automatic but it is the first step in learning the skill of holding. Over time, the reflex transitions into a skill.
The tongue thrust reflex helps a baby move food back out of her mouth BEFORE she actually has this skill. This allows her to bring food into her own mouth and explore the flavor and texture while also nearly guaranteeing that the food will be pushed back out of the mouth rather than moved back towards the throat. This allows the baby to explore food in a safe way well before she has learned to chew it up and well before she has to attempt to swallow it, and well before she even has coordinated fine motor skills to hold and pull the food back out of her mouth with her hands.
Motor learning theory postulates that reflexes are more efficiently integrated when we are taught different skills to override them (ie, in the case of the tongue thrust reflex- moving food to the sides of the mouth). By offering food while the tongue thrust reflex is still present, rather than avoiding feeding until it has integrated, you allow the baby to learn to override the thrust reflex faster and more completely.
Research does support the idea that there is a critical window for introduction of "lumpy textures" and guess what? It's early! If we miss this 6-8 month window, because we are waiting for a tongue thrust reflex to integrate, we put kids at increased risk for later refusal of textures!
So we strongly recommend you ignore this feeding myth and let your baby use the tongue thrust reflex before it integrates in order to practice chewing and tasting food.
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Feeding therapist looking for more? Jump into our 8 hour continuing education course: Teaching Kids to Eat for a deeper dive here!
Ready for myth #2? Head on over to our next post!