Pocketing food is common, both in toddlers and older children. It refers to the baby ‘hiding’ or ‘storing’ food either in their cheeks, below their tongue or just keeping it behind their teeth for a few minutes to many hours. They might even end up falling asleep with food in their mouths; which comes with its own set of risks.
Whether for a few minutes or hours, food pocketing can make meal times a particularly frustrating time for parents. There are so many reasons why children pocket or hoard food in their mouth:
They do not like it – They might realize that they do not like the taste or feel of the food once it is in their mouths, but cannot bring themselves to spit it out.
If they like it – They might like the sensation of the food in their mouths and the way it feels against their tongue and cheeks. They then hold on to this sensation by not swallowing the food.
Swallowing hurts – When it is painful to swallow, the baby might avoid pain by storing the food in a less painful, comfortable area in the mouth. The pain might be caused by a mouth ulcer or a sore throat.
Oral motor skills – The child might not have developed the right oral motor skills to maneuver food in their mouths. Their oral sensory mechanisms might also be underdeveloped. Thus they do not realize they have food in their mouth, and keep accepting more until the cannot process it.
How to help your baby overcome pocketing food
Small portions – Feed them food in very small bites and make sure it is chewed and swallowed before you give the next bite. Small morsels are easier to swallow.
Introduce drinks – Introduce drinks between bites to wash down the food. If the food is too dry and uncomfortable to swallow, drinks will make swallowing easier.
Show them how to do it – If their motor skills are inhibited, it is very possible that your baby does not just know how to swallow food or ‘retrieve’ it from where they have pocketed it. Simply demonstrate to them how to push food around with the tongue.
Discourage passive eating – Make sure they are not doing something else, like playing with a toy while eating.
Be patient – Do not turn meal times into a battle ground. This will only be frustrating for both of you.