QUESTION: Our 22-month-old son has developed a bad habit of spitting out bites of food. The first time it happened, I had set a cup on his tray while he was still chewing a bite of food. He removed the food from his mouth, set it on his tray, and then took a drink. I thought nothing of it, but it’s gotten progressively worse since then.
Sometimes he’ll chew a bite of food for a while, takes it out of his mouth, put it on his tray, and takes a bite of something else. Then he puts the half-chewed bite back in his mouth and begins chewing on it again. If I catch him before he spits out a bite, I can sometimes coach him into chewing and swallowing. We have tried only giving him one bite at a time once the prior bite is swallowed, but this isn’t working. What can we do?
ANSWER: Like so many of today’s parents, you’re paying so much attention to the details of your son’s behavior that you are unable to see that where any given behavior is concerned, there is always a bigger picture.
This age child is prone to experimenting with the “stuff” of the world, and what you are describing is simply one such experiment. To you, your son’s behavior appears odd (alarming?) only because you can’t remember what the world was like when you were his age.
As a consequence of your own amnesia, you are concerned that your son may be developing a “bad habit” when he’s simply engaged in a very innocent and playful process that involves curiosity, discovery, and creativity. The food grows his body; playing with his food grows his brain!
Your son wonders what happens to food when he chews it, and the only way to answer the question is to remove it from his mouth. By chewing one thing, then another, he’s playing with different tastes and combination of tastes. At the age of 22 months, he’s discovering how to make the simple, necessary act of eating something not just enjoyable, but adventurous. He’s discovering that food is a “many-splendored thing.” How wonderful!
This is no big deal, but be assured that if you make a big deal of it, if you focus a lot of attention on this issue, if you try to micromanage how he eats (you may have already started down this road), then what is now harmless play may turn into something very serious.
Food may become the focal point of a power struggle between you and him. Instead of regarding food and the act of eating as an adventure, he may become a picky eater, a food neurotic instead of a gourmand.
Believe me, this is not the time to be correcting your son’s table manners. Left alone (and I mean completely alone), this will probably run its course before his third birthday, by which time he will be trying to imitate your behavior at the table.
If it hasn’t run its course by then, begin gently correcting him. In the meantime, if you just can’t stand watching him chew and remove and replace and chew and remove and so on, then feed him separately, away from the table — out of sight, out of mind.
[Family psychologist John Rosemond: parentguru.com, johnrosemond.com. Copyright 2023, John K. Rosemond]