One of the things that MANY parents are a little nervous about when it comes to weaning their baby is the COLOSSAL mess that often comes with it! Weaning is generally a pretty MESSY time with food going everywhere as your little ones learn the skills needed to efficiently self-feed!
Some parents really struggle with this and often ask me ‘how can I make weaning less messy?!’. But the mess is very normal, and even beneficial for your child. This blog is all about weaning mess (and the clean-up!) – but mainly focuses on why it’s actually a good thing. I’ll cover some tips at the bottom and some of my favourite products for helping keep the mess somewhat contained…
I’m totally aware that (especially once baby is on three meals a day) cleaning the kitchen 3 times a day EVERY DAY is no fun – but little ones do and will get better at eating and it DOES get less messy as their skills develop!
In this blog, I want to explain the reasons behind allowing children to make a mess at mealtimes to (hopefully) help you embrace it a little more!
Reasons why Weaning Mess is actually a good thing:
It’s all part of their learning experience
Allowing kids to get messy is a big part of their learning and development when it comes to eating. Research supports the idea that letting kids make a mess and explore their food helps them to accept a wider variety of textures and flavours. For more on moving through textures when weaning, check out my blog.
Babies learn by picking up, touching and feeling objects and this applies to food too. By allowing them to touch, squeeze, poke, prod and smell the food, you’re giving them the opportunity to become familiar with many different sensory aspects of food. In contrast, if babies are only offered food on a spoon without being able to explore it themselves, they may not have so much of a chance to experience, become familiar with and accept a wide variety of foods.
Some children are naturally more sensitive when it comes to food and will struggle more with textures. Exposing them to the various sensory aspects of food, without any pressure to eat can help them to gradually become more confident and curious with new foods. See tips below for more on this.
It offers them independence
One of the reasons I advocate a “best of both” approach when it comes to weaning – both traditional spoon feeding and offering finger foods, is to encourage children’s independence right from the beginning of their feeding journey. It’s important for children to be allowed control when it comes to eating, so that they can develop and listen to their own appetite and cues around eating and hunger.
So, whether you’re offering spoons or finger foods, I always encourage allowing your little one to take the lead and feed themselves. And that’s likely to create some mess as they develop their skills and coordination around eating. One of the reasons behind many fussy eating behaviours is children exerting their growing independence. One way to allow them some independence is through self-feeding, and accepting the inevitable mess that comes with it!
It’s a sensory experience
One reason many parents are apprehensive about letting kids get messy and “play” with their food is the idea that they may be creating bad habits for the future. However, babies and young children need to LEARN how to competently use cutlery and eat “properly” like adults. This takes lots and lots of practice as well as role-modelling.
There is a difference between children “playing” with food, e.g. throwing it and them exploring it. If you’re struggling with a little one who throws food, check out my blog on practical food throwing tips for feeding kids.
The idea of letting kids “get messy” isn’t about encouraging them to play with their food instead of eating it or about deliberately making a big mess. It’s about understanding how babies and children learn – sometimes that’s through sensory experiences. You can allow your child to explore foods and make a bit of a mess, whilst still role-modelling and teaching them age-appropriate table manners.
It may help them be more comfortable with foods
I know it can be really difficult to watch little ones cover themselves with food, but it’s best to leave the cleaning up to the end of the meal. Think about it: would you enjoy it if someone was constantly wiping your face throughout your meal? If you’re cleaning up your little ones too often during the meal, it can create a negative experience for them and in some cases, it can contribute to children’s reluctance to be in the high chair.
Instead, wait until the end of the meal to clean everything up in one go. If your little one really dislikes being cleaned up, you could try taking them out of the high chair first. This can help to avoid creating a negative association with the high-chair for future mealtimes.
Messy play counts too!
If you’re really finding it difficult to allow mess at mealtimes, it’s still really important to expose children to “messy” experiences to help their sensory development. This can be through messy play – e.g. getting muddy in the garden / park, painting, sand or arts and crafts. You can even involve food by using dried pulses, pasta, rice, flour or herbs and spices. This can be a great way to gently encourage particularly fussy eaters to play with and experience foods in different ways.
A psychologist’s thoughts on why mealtime mess is important…
To support a little more about this, I asked Dr Rachel Cohen to share her ideas and philosophy about why MESSY mealtimes may be important too. Dr Rachel Cohen is a clinical psychologist with a PhD and specialises in eating disorders. She’s passionate that the best way to support your child in developing a healthy relationship with eating is to create relaxed and pressure-free mealtimes, where exploring, playing, and making mess with food is encouraged. Below are some thoughts from her
Rachel has said:
“Like all child development, learning to eat is a skill that takes time and practice and this may well mean them making a mess in the process. Letting our kids make mess while they learn to feed themselves is crucial to setting up positive associations with food and eating.
Many children who are fussy eaters are very sensitive to different textures and can be reluctant to touch and try new foods. Messy play (outside of mealtimes) with food helps them get used to new textures so it’s a good idea to try this too. Handling and touching new foods without pressure to eat them will help your toddler become familiar with new foods, get used to different textures and be more likely to try them in the future.”
She also offers a few tips herself:
“Let them use their hands:little ones love feeling independent and letting them feed themselves is a great way to boost their self-esteem and help them learn essential feeding skills.
Offering finger foods as often as possible is a great way for them to explore new textures.If you’re spoon feeding, hold a spoon of puree out for them to grab and try themselves (it really doesn’t matter if they miss their mouth!)
Let them get involved in food preparation and cooking, do sensory play activities with different textured foods, and present food in playful ways on their plate.”
I hope you’ve found this blog helpful and it helps you to feel more relaxed about the inevitable mess that comes with feeding kids. Remember, it WILL get better, and you’ll have plenty of hilarious pictures to look back on when it does! Below you’ll find some more tips on handling the mealtime mess, as well as some of my general tips and the equipment I find helpful for coping with the mess at mealtimes!
My top tips for how to cope with weaning mess (and how to clean up baby!):
- Involve little ones in sensory play away from the table so they have plenty of opportunities to explore and make a mess
- Try and clear up just ONCE a day if you can so you’re not spending 3x a day every day cleaning the kitchen. Do scrub up tougher foods like porridge and Weetabix and anything that stains like tomato sauce, curries and beetroot right away though!
- Similarly, wipe up little ones just ONCE at the end of the meal
- Sit and eat with them – this way they will learn HOW to develop the skills to eat well
- Follow my tips for dealing with food throwing to hopefully help it be short lived
- Have a routine around the clean up – make it part of the process from the start of weaning so baby soon gets used to it. Make it a game by spotting their nose and smiling or playing peekaboo under the wipe!
- Use warm water and soft soaps (if using) to make it less cold on baby’s face. I often use a little bowl of warm soapy water to wash Ada’s hands and face post meal
- Start with the face FIRST and then wipe that before peeling off the bib (otherwise you’re guaranteed they’ll instantly look down and the food’ll go everywhere (still happens to me regularly)! Then do the hands and then peel off the bib last!
- Invest in a good bib that lasts a long time and you can throw in the washing machine. I sometimes use a coverall bib WITH a catchy bib at the same time, depending what the food is.
- Usually a catchy bib works well for finger foods, but food from a spoon or anything wet I think the coveralls are essential! If you’ve got both, use both !!
- Don’t make a big deal of the mess – the more you do, the more they’ll be likely to make!
- Get cutlery in nice and early to allow baby to explore this and start to develop the skills to use it.
- Get them involved in the clean up as soon as you can – hand over the wipe and ask them to have a go themselves first. Some babies love the independence this gives them and they will learn how to do it better with practice too!
- If you’ve got a colossal mess of a baby – pop them straight in the sink (size permitting) and let them have a play in some warm water to clean themselves!
- In the summer, eat outside and let them eat more or less naked! I like to bring the highchair and the attachable table outside so they can make as much mess as they like!
- You can also role-model yourself using a napkin and let them see you wiping your hands / mouth. You’re not expecting them to start cleaning themselves up (that would be nice!) until they’re much older, but letting them see how you use a napkin can help them to understand and learn in the long-run.
Helpful Equipment for Coping with the Weaning Mess:
- Tidy tot style bib that covers the whole highchair – not always practical for every situation, but some swear by them
- A splash matt on the floor- especially if you have carpet in the area your baby will be eating
- A hand-held hoover – I actually found this really helpful and still do now (if it hadn’t broken – defo worth having a good quality one!)
- Cheeky wipes for cleaning up their faces before and after the meal! I love these and still have mine from when I was weaning Raffy. I just use and throw in the machine with the next wash.
- A long-sleeved, cover all bib – I really like the Little Chomps ones and, again I’ve had mine since Raffy started weaning.
- A High-Chair Catchy – a device that attaches to the highchair and is designed to catch all the food before it hits the floor, so you can save the food without it being wasted.
- Vital baby spray – this is helpful for out and about without having to use alcohol gel. I use this on their hands and also the table (not an ad FYI!!)
- Closed beaker for out and about AS LONG AS you’ve allowed them to learn from an open cup too – check out my blog on what to look for in a beaker for babies.
- A dog! People swear by these for the weaning journey 😉
Check out my blog for more about my favourite weaning equipment!
Article written with support from Dr Rachel Cohen – As a clinical psychologist, PhD, specialising in eating disorders, Dr Rachel Cohen knows that the best way to support your child in developing a healthy relationship with eating is to create relaxed and pressure-free mealtimes, where exploring, playing, and making mess with food is encouraged!