Why You Should Let Your Baby Get Messy While Eating

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The Messy Truth: Why Baby Eating Habits Are Crucial for Development


Key Takeaways

  • Embracing messy eating is crucial for your baby's development. When you allow your baby to get messy during meals, you're actually supporting their growth in multiple areas. This includes the development of gross and fine motor skills as they learn to manipulate food and utensils, sensory exploration as they experience different textures and tastes, and cognitive development as they learn about cause and effect. By resisting the urge to keep everything clean, you're providing a rich learning environment for your child.
  • Messy eating helps create positive associations with food and mealtimes. By allowing your baby to explore food freely, you're fostering independence and a healthy relationship with eating. This approach can prevent mealtime battles and picky eating habits in the future. It's important to repeatedly expose your baby to various foods, even if they don't seem to like them at first, as it can take multiple exposures for a baby to develop a taste for new foods. This patience and persistence can lead to a more varied and nutritious diet as your child grows.
  • Preparing for and managing the mess can make the experience more enjoyable for everyone. Instead of stressing about the cleanup, plan ahead by using easy-to-clean surfaces, removing clothing that might get stained, and having cleaning supplies ready. Remember that this messy phase is temporary but the skills your baby is developing are long-lasting. By maintaining a positive attitude towards the mess, you're creating a relaxed and enjoyable mealtime environment that benefits your baby's overall development and your family's dynamics.

Baby Eating Frequently asked questions

Should I let my baby be messy when eating?

Yes, you should let your baby be messy when eating. Messy baby eating is a crucial part of your child's development. When your baby gets messy during meals, they're exploring textures, developing motor skills, and learning about their food. This hands-on experience is essential for their sensory development and can help prevent picky eating habits later on. While it might be tempting to keep everything clean, allowing your baby to explore food freely can lead to a healthier relationship with eating in the long run.

Should you let babies play with their food?

Absolutely! Letting babies play with their food is an important part of their learning process. When a baby puts hands on face when eating or squishes food between their fingers, they're engaging in sensory exploration. This play helps them understand different textures, temperatures, and tastes. It also aids in developing fine motor skills as they learn to pick up small pieces of food. While it might seem counterintuitive, allowing this messy eating baby behavior can actually encourage a more positive attitude towards a variety of foods in the future.

Why is my baby such a messy eater?

Your baby is a messy eater because they're learning! Messy eating is a normal and important part of your baby's development. At this stage, they're still developing the motor skills needed to eat neatly. They're also exploring their food through touch and taste, which inevitably leads to mess. When your baby puts hands on face when eating or smears food around, they're actually engaging in valuable sensory play. This exploration helps them become familiar with different textures and tastes, which is crucial for developing a healthy relationship with food.

How do you feed a messy baby?

Feeding a messy baby requires patience and preparation. Start by creating a easy-to-clean eating area. Use bibs, splash mats, or old newspapers to catch spills. Offer a variety of foods with different textures to encourage exploration. Don't worry too much about how to keep baby clean while eating - a certain amount of mess is beneficial. Instead, focus on making mealtime a positive experience. Allow your baby to feed themselves when they show interest, even if it leads to more mess. Remember, this messy phase is temporary but the skills they're developing are lasting.

Does baby led weaning have to be messy?

Baby-led weaning often involves messy baby eating, but the level of mess can vary. This approach encourages babies to self-feed from the start, which naturally leads to some messiness as they learn to grasp and manipulate food. While you can't completely avoid mess, you can manage it by using large bibs, placing a splash mat under the high chair, and offering foods that are easier to handle. Remember, the mess is a sign that your baby is actively learning and exploring their food, which is a crucial part of their development.

At what age should a child start eating by themselves?

Most children start showing interest in self-feeding between 6-8 months. By 12-15 months, many toddlers can use a spoon, albeit messily. However, full independence in eating usually develops between 18-24 months. It's important to encourage self-feeding as soon as your child shows interest, even if it leads to messy baby eating. This independence fosters fine motor skills development and a positive relationship with food. Remember, every child develops at their own pace, so don't worry if your child takes a bit longer to master self-feeding.

What age should kids stop being messy eaters?

There's no set age when toddlers stop being messy eaters, as every child develops at their own pace. However, most children start to eat more neatly around 3-4 years old. By this age, they've usually developed better motor skills and coordination. Remember, messy eating is a normal part of development. Instead of focusing on when do toddlers stop being messy eaters, concentrate on making mealtimes positive experiences. As your child grows and practices, their eating will naturally become less messy.

Why You Should Let Your Baby Get Messy While Eating

Your baby has reached an important milestone and is ready to begin their first forays into the world of food and it’s going to get messy! While many parents wish that feeding their baby was not quite the messy ordeal, that mess also serves a purpose. While this may mean a little more cleanup is involved for parents, letting your baby make a mess is part of the learning experience and is a natural part of your baby development.

We see the funny videos all the time; an adorable baby sitting in its highchair plastered in strained carrots. Their hair is slick, there are carrots up their nostrils, and the only thing that managed to escape a smearing was their eyeballs…well, sometimes. The highchair is stained orange, the floor has chunks of peas on it, and even the family dog managed to get caught up in the mess. The battle with food has begun.

Chewing Skills

Babies are born with the natural reflex action which enables them to suck on breast or bottle. The same can’t be said for chewing. Babies have to learn how to chew and handle food in their mouths. Your baby is ready for solids when tongue thrusting has stopped. This action is part of the natural sucking reflex which helps babies to get their milk but it has the habit of pushing food back out of baby’s mouth. When this reflex has stopped, your baby is ready to try their first foods.

At first, manipulating food around baby’s mouth is pretty difficult for them as they are used to liquids only. You may put in a baby spoon’s worth of cereal in their mouth only to end up needing a shower and a housecleaning. This is perfectly normal and your baby will learn how to control their lips and tongue better as you go. You may not wish to laugh too visibly when your baby “eats” raspberries with their mouth as they can learn rather quickly that you think a rice cereal shower is a great time.

If your baby makes weird faces when you introduce a new food, this doesn’t mean they don’t like it. It’s simply a new taste that isn’t what they are used to. Until your baby learns to hold food in their mouth using their lips, you will often see your baby put their fists in their mouth as they try to eat. This allows them to hold the food in and you’re your baby can suck on their fingers and hands to help them to swallow their food. Once your baby has begun to get the hang of eating pureed foods and runny cereals, chunkier foods and finger foods are next to be introduced. Now the fun begins.

baby eating with spoon

Why You Should Let Your Baby Get Messy While Eating

Gross Motor Skills

While your baby is learning to enjoy the taste of new things, they are also learning to use their gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are the larger body movements your baby makes, usually those involving movement of their head, arms, legs, and can include milestones like sitting, crawling, or walking. A few well-cooked peas on your baby’s highchair tray can also help them to work their gross motor skills. In order to fine tune their fine motor skills later, your baby must first figure out how to get their arm and hand to where the food is. While this skill level is usually quite quickly learned, it is still quite the achievement and can be a little messy. Instead of peas in hand, your baby will often end up being the living and breathing equivalent of a jackhammer. Be prepared to watch the peas fly, get plastered all over the highchair tray, and watch how your baby chew on his hands in his efforts to get at those peas.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are those thumb and finger movements you make in order to pick up a small object, among other things. Your baby will begin to work on these skills by trying to use their hands as a rake across their feeding surface. You may end up with more food on the floor or on their lap than in their little mouths, but learning is hard work.
As babies begin to eat with their hands and work on their fine motor skills they will begin to try to grasp small pieces of food between their fingers and bring it to their mouths. The food may fly as they throw pieces onto the floor and although this may just seem like a mess, it is really complex learning. Your baby is learning about their environment and how to control their bodies just as much as they are learning how to eat. Projectiles of cereal loops teach your baby about gravity, how their physical action result in a physical result, and is a good opportunity to teach them table manners and skills.

Sensory Development

Even though that mess may seem rather useless at first glance, it is like information uploading to the brain. Baby’s senses are in continuous development as they progress through various milestones and development of the senses is extremely important. Feeling food as it squishes through their fingers teaches them about the different textures all around them, how things smell, and how they taste.

Baby playing with their food teaches them how their food sounds when it gets squished or thrown on the floor, how it looks differently than it did originally, and how the texture has changed in their hands and their mouths. All of this is very useful learning that will be applied throughout your baby’s lifetime and can teach them how they have a direct effect on their environment and what specific actions end up with as results.

Unless your baby is trying to wipe away food from their face, leave it be until they are finished eating unless it is close to their eyes or could impede their breathing. Getting mashed potatoes on your cheek feels like something. How you held your spoon and missed your mouth and got mushy potatoes all over your chin provides sensory cues and helps your baby learn how to adapt their movements to avoid this happening again. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily feel bad to be messy and it is something we often look back on to our childhood with fondness. As adults we often wish we could just dive into our food with joy and abandon for a reason…because it was great when we did it as kids.

Use of Cutlery and Dishes

As your baby masters picking up food and putting it into their mouth, you may get a temporary reprieve from some of the messiness. It’s not over yet. Next comes learning to eat food off of bowls and plates with forks and spoons. Your baby is ready to learn as soon as they show interest in getting their hands on the spoon, and while it may be a while before they are able to do much with it, holding it in their hands and manipulating it is an important part of learning to use it.

While you may be tempted to use the same dishes and cutlery the family uses, babies learn best off of tools designed for them specifically. Many baby dishes have deeper sides so your baby can better chase food around and scoop it up, and many divided dishes come with suction cups on the bottom so your baby doesn’t spend most of its time learning about how gravity affects a bowl. Forks and spoons are made smaller for tiny baby fingers and mouths and we all know that using the right tool for the job makes the job a lot easier.

Try mashed foods first. These may prove easier to scoop up with a piece of cutlery. At first, your baby may just play around with the cutlery and continue to dive in with their hands, sucking food off of their fingers, spreading it around, or removing it from the plate or bowl. Position the fork or spoon properly in your baby’s hand and help them get some food on it and guide it to their mouth. This uses both gross and fine motor skills and will be a challenge for them at first. Be prepared for projectiles as food flies off of the cutlery as your baby attempts to use this tool…and spoons make great missile launchers.

Over time, your baby will become a pro at using these adult tools but will often return to eating with their hands, dropping food over the edge, or throwing their spoon. These activities are a normal part of your baby development and will diminish as your child gets older and they learn their table manners and social norms. Finger foods are always fun as adults and even we find they taste better without the forks and spoons, so it is only natural that your baby wants to get their hands in there, chew and suck on their fingers, and lick off all that great grub. Constantly wiping away any trace of food can increase the likelihood that your baby will become overly sensitive to different textures touching them and can create sensory difficulties that make your child uncomfortable to stimuli.

Why You Should Let Your Baby Get Messy While Eating

Table Manners and Socializing

While a simple, “We don’t throw food on the floor,” doesn’t seem to have much effect, over time it and other eating lessons come together to teach our baby table manners, social skills during eating and what is acceptable behavior. In the meantime, plan to repeat yourself a lot and pick up food from the floor after each meal. Provide food of many different colors and don’t worry if your baby doesn’t seem to like it much at first tasting. Baby’s taste buds are more sensitive than those of adults and it can take 5-10 exposures with a particular food before your baby will begin to like it. Offer the same items multiple times, sneak a bite of their “disliked” food in with other items, and over time they will begin to like this new food.

Meal time is time to socialize, talk about your day, and spend time as a family. Habits learned at this age can last a lifetime so it is important to teach as you intend to continue. If your family doesn’t think eating in front of the television is appropriate, feed your baby at the table from the onset. If your baby is not due to eat or not hungry and it is everyone else’s mealtime, put them in their highchair and put a few tidbits on their tray. Babies learn from everything around them and will mock what you do as they learn it. They are ever watchful and will take note of what you are doing and learn through exposure. Even if they are not hungry, providing them with a fork or spoon and a little food will turn into a tactile sensory learning time and can help to get them on the same schedule as you’re on.

Creating Positive Association with Food

Fighting to get food in your baby’s mouth, to regain the spoon, or to continuously keep them clean creates a negative association with food and mealtime. Food is supposed to be healthy, fuel for your body, and enjoyable. It doesn’t take long for a baby to learn to associate things and you don’t really want to make it so that every time your baby sees a spoon they clamp their mouth shut, turn their head away, or resort to a crying jag. Keep mealtime positive by allowing your baby to be somewhat independent. That means letting them have some control over their own feeding. Give them their own spoon while you feed them with another.

Pause to let them try new things on their own before making it a battle of wills. As individuals, all people want to exert some independence. That doesn’t mean your baby should only eat peas because that’s all they like. Foods should be repeatedly reintroduced to allow exposure to develop into a taste for the item. While it is not always appropriate to let your baby do whatever they want, if you provide the healthy options and they can choose from them themselves, this allows a level of independence that is acceptable for both you and your child. Your baby has their own personality and it will continue to develop throughout their entire life and making something a negative experience is bound to result in a battle of wills at every meal.

Clean Up Struggles

Mess is just mess. In most circumstances, mess is rather easy to clean up even if it takes a few moments. If you prepare in advance, most messes are easy to fix and do nothing but take a few moments of your time to clean up. While bibs may be effective in some circumstances, parents will often find there is no bib big enough to make up for a baby learning to feed themselves. Instead of worrying about your child staining and ruining their clothing…take them off before you put them in their highchair.

Place the baby’s highchair in an area that has a flooring material that is easily cleaned. If you have carpet everywhere, simply purchase a cheap plastic tablecloth or mat and sit your baby’s highchair on it for easier cleanup. Most highchairs have tray you can throw right in the dishwasher for easy cleaning. If you wash dishes by hand, the sooner you wipe up the tray the less difficult it will be to get smushed food off. If you’re more relaxed and let things sit for a while after a meal before you clean up, simply soak the tray in warm, soapy water for a few moments and most things will come right off. Use only child-friendly, non-toxic cleansers on your child’s highchair. Because their food is often directly on the surface, you don’t want it absorbing any chemical residues that have been left behind.

If your baby doesn’t like to get cleaned up at the end of a meal it may be best just to give them a bath as most babies and toddlers love to play in the water. If this can’t be done, remove your child from the highchair and bring them to the sink area. This will help prevent your baby from associating sitting in the highchair with the unpleasant task of getting washed up. For example, if every time your child eats spaghetti they have to have their face, hands, arms, and body scrubbed before they can leave the highchair, this can lead them to associate spaghetti with something they don’t like. They may then learn to hate spaghetti. Let your baby get messy! They’ll learn many things about the environment they live in and learn that meals are a positive time of day that should be enjoyed.


Let your baby get messy while he or she is eating. Your baby will reach important milestones through eating and getting messy, and the mess your baby makes also serves a purpose. While this means that more cleanups is involved, letting your baby make a mess is part of the learning experience and is a natural part of your baby development.

Where did you find foods around your kitchen or dining area? What projectiles your baby mastered with his food? Let us know…

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