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Healthcare Professionals

Baby's sensory journey through food

In baby’s first year, they spend much of their time exploring and learning about the world around them using their five senses—touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing. Parents can use environmental stimuli, such as mealtimes, to accelerate the development of each sense to near maturity several months after birth.

Pediatricians can support parents by teaching them ways to accelerate sensory development. In this article, we will go over how parents can use mealtimes to engage the five senses and accelerate sensory development.

Sight

When a baby is first born, they can only see 8 to 12 inches away. Even at that distance, their vision is fuzzy. They mostly make out shapes, shades, and light—whether something is big or small, light or dark. 

Baby’s vision rapidly improves. By 4 months, they can track moving objects and make things out further away. By 5 months, they’ve developed better depth perception. And somewhere between 4 and 6 months, baby begins to see all colors. 

Pediatricians can encourage parents to include their baby in food prep and cooking to involve as much sight as possible. Baby will begin to learn what different foods look like, before and after being made into purees. And by watching parents cook and eat their own food, baby begins to desire the foods they will eat in the future. 

Mealtime is also a great time to work on baby’s movement tracking. Parents ought to feed their baby from different angles. By seeing food come from the left or the right, they learn to track objects and pay attention to things in their peripheral vision. And by positioning the spoon directly in front of baby’s eyes and pausing, parents can help baby learn to focus.  

Touch

A newborn baby already has a developed sense of touch. This early development is why babies love to explore by touching everything they can get their hands on! 

From the beginning, babies register different temperatures, shapes, weights, and textures. Yet, it does take some time before they have the necessary motor development to control their hands and arms. Starting at around 3 months, baby will begin to grab things intentionally, rather than as a reflex. 

Exploring with touch during mealtimes is fun for both parents and babies. Babies can experience new textures, like the hairy skin of a kiwi or the slimy texture of a sliced banana. 

Touch is also an integral part of introducing solids. Encourage parents to allow baby to handle a new food before tasting it. This familiarity will help them feel more comfortable trying something new. 

Hearing

Of the five senses, hearing is the one that parents tend to be the most excited about. After all, it’s hearing that leads to baby’s first words. 

Hearing begins to develop when baby is still in the womb. At around 2 months, baby will start to mimic sounds that they hear. But it won’t be until much later, around 10 or 12 months, that baby will link meaning to a word that he or she says. 

Mealtimes are one of the best times to work on baby’s language skills. Eating is one of the few times when parents and children are 100% tuned in to one another. 

Invite parents to make mealtime a fun and interactive experience. Parents can narrate what they’re doing when they’re cooking, eating, or feeding baby. They might sing songs or make up songs about what they’re doing. 

Simply playing with sounds during mealtimes can be fun. Try having parents bite an apple, or sauté food in front of their baby. All of these interactions help baby build language skills, and they’re a great bonding experience. 

Smell

Baby’s sense of smell matures when they’re still in the womb. During this time, they swallow and breathe amniotic fluid, becoming familiar with its scent. On their first day in the world, baby can identify Mom’s scent. For this reason, it’s best for new mothers to avoid heavy perfumes, as they can confuse baby. 

Mealtime is when baby gets to enjoy all sorts of new and exciting smells. Baby learns to recognize sweet, savory, spicy, and sour smells through food. Encourage parents to cook with baby there, and to introduce them to new food smells, even when it’s not what baby is eating. This early exposure helps to expand baby’s palate in the long-run. 

Taste

Baby’s sense of taste fully develops before birth. Every baby is born with an innate taste for sweet and salty foods—it’s what they experience later that forms their long-term food preferences. 

Baby encounters food flavors via Mom’s breast milk. When Mom eats a wide variety of healthy foods when breastfeeding, she introduces baby to these flavors early. It won’t be until flavor training starts at 4 months that baby will explore these flavors directly. 

During flavor training, the idea is to diversity baby’s palate. The different flavors that baby can experience include:

      • Sweet
      • Salty 
      • Sour
      • Bitter
      • Umami

Because every baby is born liking sweet and salty foods, it’s sour, bitter, and umami that new parents ought to concentrate on during the first two months of flavor training. A veggies-first approach is a good way to build baby’s enjoyment of these healthy foods. 

But it’s not only flavors that baby experiences in this early stage. From 4-6 months, guide parents on how to start introducing textures. New textures help baby learn to eat and expedite speech development. 

Even before baby starts flavor training, they use taste as a tool to explore the world. A baby’s mouth is more sensitive than its hands or fingers. This is why baby spends much of their time mouthing. Plus, the mouth offers novel information that baby cannot acquire otherwise. 

When baby is mouthing, remind parents to be cautious about what they leave out at baby’s level. Anything small enough to fit in baby’s mouth or that has pieces that could break off poses a choking hazard. 

Making the most of mealtime

Mealtime plays a key role in sensory development. During mealtime, babies experience new sights, tastes, smells, sounds, and tactile sensations. When parents use mealtime as a tool, babies can experience expedited sensory development, all while enjoying bonding time with their parents. 

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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