Giving your baby those first tastes of ‘grown-up food’ is undeniably exciting, but it can also be a bit nerve-wracking - mostly because real-life weaning rarely resembles the serene, orderly images we see on TV and in magazines.
Our little darlings might open their mouths like obedient baby birds, sure – but they’re just as likely to clamp those rosebud lips together, or worse, take a big mouthful and then gag like you’ve just tried to feed them a spoonful of bug guts.
The good news? This is all normal behaviour. Yes, even the gagging, and those scary moments when they somehow manage to cough up something they’ve already swallowed so they can have another go at chewing it. And no, they’re not doing it just to give you a heart attack.
You see, babies are born knowing how to do one thing very well: using those little mouths to suck and swallow milk. They then spend the next six months perfecting this skill, several times a day. None of this, however, prepares them for the next big job: learning to deal with non-liquid food.
As adults, we think nothing of chewing and swallowing our food, but for your baby, this is a big and sometimes confusing task. Solid food - even in its runniest, most pureed form - isn’t nearly as easy to deal with as milk; it needs to be moved around the mouth by the tongue before being shunted to the back and swallowed. (Later on, when you start to add more texture, there will be chewing involved, too.)
In the early days of weaning, your baby is still learning how to deal with these new and unfamiliar tasks, so a certain amount of gagging and dribbling is absolutely par for the course. And though it may make your heart leap when they do it, your baby’s gag reflex is an important safety mechanism that helps protect them from choking.
A young baby’s gag reflex is located fairly close to the front of the mouth, but by the time they are ready to wean, most babies have cleverly accustomed themselves to the feeling of having objects in their mouths (yes, all that gnawing on their fists, toys and everything else within reach did have a purpose!)
However, if a spoonful of food does make its way to the back of the throat before your baby is ready, the gag reflex is there to keep it from going any farther. Your baby may heave and splutter a bit, or get a bit red in the face, but within a couple of seconds the food will be out of the danger zone. (In contrast, choking looks quite different; it may be completely silent, and the skin will often turn a dusky colour. This requires immediate assistance; the NHS has a helpful page on what to do if your baby is choking.)
The good news about gagging is that it’s actually a learning experience for your baby; as unnerving as we parents might find it, those heaves and splutters are teaching your little one a lot about how to manoeuvre food around in the mouth. And this is going to come in very handy in a few weeks, when you both tackle the next big challenge: lumpy foods!
Does your baby splutter a lot when eating solids, or has it been a smooth ride so far? Let us know in the comments section below!