Have you ever wondered, “why babies put everything in their mouths?
They hit the four-month mark, and suddenly everything within reach must be thoroughly tasted – their hands and feet, any toy whatsoever, the carpet fluff, your phone, the cat’s tail…
It’s a constant struggle to be vigilant enough to avoid something truly vile becoming a chew toy!
But as soggy and worry-inducing as it may be for parents, the mouthing stage is actually an important part of a baby's development. It assists in early speech development, the transition to solid foods, improves hand-eye coordination, and much much more.
So, while your baby is exploring the world via their mouth, let’s explore why this happens – and why it’s a good thing!
Your baby may seem to be mindlessly stuffing objects into their mouth willy nilly, but there is a method to the madness. Like many infant habits, nature has ensured that babies have a natural curiosity and drive to mouth things. They are only doing what evolution designed them to do – preparing them to eat solid foods (a practice which comes with a bevy of side benefits!)
In the first few months, babies rely on their innate rooting reflex. This is the survival instinct that encourages a newborn to attempt to suckle anything that touches their face.
This reflex begins to subside at around four months, around the time where babies can bring their hands to their mouths – and voila, welcome to the mouthing phase!
There are plenty of milestones in your baby’s journey over the first year. Two of the most significant include speech development (albeit early) and the leap to solid food. So, it’s no surprise that the mouth becomes a focal point early on.
Sucking and mouthing can also be helpful for self-soothing, and the art of inserting things into one’s mouth is great for building hand-eye coordination.
Here are some of the other benefits:
If your baby is used to shoving everything available into their mouth (within safe and reasonable guidelines, of course), the transition to solid foods may be a little easier. As they gum that teething toy or suck on their wee toes, their tongue and jaw are able to move in new and different ways.
This helps babies learn the skills needed to chew and manipulate food. Along with that, mouthing works to desensitise the gag reflex that babies are born with, making way for more textured lumpier foods.
Those same jaw and mouth movements also come in very useful when learning to make new sounds, and eventually pronounce words and build language skills!
Babies don’t develop in a safe little germ-free bubble, in spite of our best efforts! This is actually a good thing. If they did, their immune systems would be severely limited. The microbes and germs living on toys and other objects gently expose your baby’s body – and immune system – to germs.
This helps ensure a robust immune system later in life.
Let’s face it; small babies are pretty limited in their ability to experience the world for quite some time. Their eyesight is still in progress, and they don’t have great control of their hands and fingers yet. That leaves their darling little mouths, which are packed with nerve cells – the perfect opportunity to learn about their environment through taste and texture.
If your baby doesn’t seem to have hit the mouthing phase, don’t panic. Some infants experience it less than others, and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your little one.
However, because of the many benefits listed above, it is good to encourage this behaviour when you can. Provide plenty of safe, infant-friendly toys for your baby to mouth. Remember, babies mimic a lot of what we do, so go ahead and put the toys in your mouth and have a good chew so your baby can learn – seriously! Make it into a fun game, no pressure.
The more texture and sensory it is, the better – try to find squishy, lumpy, bumpy, and intriguing (baby-friendly) toys. You can even pop a toy in the fridge or freezer to make it cold. Household objects like wooden spoons, rubber spatulas and measuring spoons also are safe and fun for babies to mouth and explore.
Praise your baby when they use their mouths to test out safe objects. Make it fun, and they are more likely to keep it up.
As for safety, common sense is always helpful – adult supervision is vital when babies are prone to popping things into their mouth. It’s best to use infant-approved, baby-specific toys designed for mouthing.