Trust The Process
Does Your Toddler Also Chew Up Food Just To Spit It Out? Here’s Why
It’s just another normal (and yes, frustrating) part of their development.
Oh no, here it comes. When your toddler chews up food and spits it out constantly, you develop a bit of a sixth sense about when the next half-masticated bite is coming to a dining table near you. If you know they like the food, and it’s not too hot or cold, then what gives, kid? Romper spoke with two pediatric speech-language pathologists — the people who specialize in baby and toddler feeding issues — about why little ones might chew up and spit out their food. Their take is pretty positive: it’s a totally normal behavior, and they’ll grow out of it before too long.
Why your toddler chews up food and spits it out
Eating is a pretty involved process when you think about it — babies and toddlers are still learning to coordinate their lips, tongues, and jaws to take a bite, chew it up, and swallow. Then there’s the sensory experience of food, with all its flavors and textures. Because so many factors go into eating, the reasons your kid is spitting out their meal may vary. But they pretty much all boil down to this: it’s just part of your little one mastering feeding themselves.
“Part of that process can involve chewing food, spitting it out, looking at it, chewing it some more, then swallowing it,” says Audrey Byrd, MS, CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Children’s of Alabama. “Sometimes the kids are visual learners and want to see the food and make sure it's chewed well enough before they attempt to swallow it. Another [reason] is that they're still learning how to motor plan — how big of a bite to take, how many bites to take at one time. How many times do I have to chew, how do I learn to move the food side to side in my mouth?”
When your toddler is still mastering feeding and makes a “motor planning mistake,” as Byrd calls it — like taking too big of a bite — they may need to spit out their food and start over. They could also be sampling something harder to chew and just get tired of trying. “‘I'm done with this. It's taken too long for me to chew. I'm going to spit that thing right back out,’” she says.
“Meat seems to be the food that it happens to a lot,” says Kerry Glidewell, CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation. Meat tends to require a bit more breakdown than other foods toddlers are used to eating, like crackers and even chicken nuggets, which are softer than, say, ground beef.
Your child may also be spitting out food, according to Glidewell and Byrd, because:
- They realize they’re full mid-bite.
- They are teething, and suddenly chewing is a little uncomfortable (or downright painful).
- They’re eating foods that require a grinding motion to chew, which tends to develop around age 3 or later. You might seem them spit out meats, crunchier veggies like string beans, or grapes, Glidewell says.
- They don’t have the language yet to tell you they’d prefer something else, or they’re still exploring it but don’t want to swallow it yet.
- They get a reaction out of you when they do it. Attention is currency with many kids this age, and if spitting out their food draws your focus, why not?
Just know that if you’re just beginning to serve your little one solids, spitting out a bite doesn’t mean they don’t like that food. “If you try foods for the very first time and it comes back out, that doesn’t mean they don’t like it. That might mean that they’re still trying to integrate their tongue patterns to swallow,” says Glidewell. “Research says that you should try something, like, 12 to 20 times before you realize [they] really just don’t like it.”
When will your toddler stop chewing up and spitting out their food?
And, perhaps more importantly, is it something you should teach them not to do? While this behavior is “developmentally normal” until around age 2, you’ll probably see the most chewing up and spitting out when you start introducing solids to your baby. It can happen again at later ages when your child is teething or sick. It’s a normal and natural part of mastering eating to spit things out, both experts agree, and it’s better than trying to swallow a too-big bite or something under-chewed.
It’s important that you just let your kid explore foods how they need to. This helps them get the hang of eating and is ultimately what will make them stop spitting out food. “I don’t blame parents for not wanting that to happen in the middle of a fancy restaurant. In those scenarios, offer foods that are easier to chew or smaller, already bite-sized pieces of food,” says Byrd. “If you’re home, let the child explore and learn and try to hold back your frustration and angst that they’re getting messy or that it’s a little bit gross. Allowing them to explore food — from how it feels, how it smells, how it tastes, the texture, the temperature — is a really important part of learning that developmental process for feeding.”
If you want this behavior to go away quickly, it’s best to just ignore it, Glidewell says. “A lot of times they’ll put it right back in their mouth. They’re just looking at it, seeing how it changed, seeing, ‘This is what it feels like this in my mouth, what is it going to feel like in my hand?’ And it’s not that big a deal, but if you see it that they'‘re never swallowing any of it, that it always comes right back out, that might be a problem.”
That said, if your child is consistently spitting out a big portion of their food, gagging, having negative feelings about meal time, or you feel like they can’t eat enough because of spitting out food, talk to your pediatrician. Kids who struggle with this from the time they transition from purees to solids may have a feeding challenge, like a tongue tie, Glidewell says. But if they’ve been eating just fine and it pops up out of nowhere, consider it just another silly toddler antic.
“It’s fine to correct them or do reminders, but nothing to punish them,” says Glidwell. “It’s OK to ignore the behavior, occasionally reminding them it’s kind of the same thing as throwing. The [smaller] the reaction, the less incentive they have to keep repeating it.”
Audrey Byrd, MS, CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Children’s of Alabama
Kerry Glidewell, CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation
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