Ask the Expert: Why it's OK to let them play with their food

Letting a child make a mess at mealtimes means they're less likely to be a fussy eater, says children's food expert Dr Gillian Harris.

It can be healthy to allow your child to get messy with their food

"IS IT good for my child to play with food? I try to stop her doing it because of the mess."

Dr Gillian Harris, a consultant child psychologist and expert on childhood food acceptance and refusal, says: "You are not alone – in a survey carried out by WaterWipes, 40 per cent of parents don't let their baby play with their food and over a third even feel stressed or anxious about it.

"But it's very important for your baby to interact with food, either when they're being fed or feeding themselves, or when playing away from mealtimes. This is because babies are born sensitive to taste, touch and smell, so they'll often overreact to new food tastes and the feel of sticky foods on their hands and faces.

"This sensitivity is dampened down (desensitised) if they get used to the experience of smells, tastes and the feel of foods in the first months, as you introduce new foods to them.

"Babies who haven't had sensory food play experiences are more likely to be fussy eaters and to be worried about different food tastes and the feel and look of different textured foods. This reluctance to touch and taste will carry on through childhood – it's easier to desensitise a baby than it is to desensitise an older toddler or child.

"So, if you're spoon-feeding your baby, give them a spoon of their own to hold and play with and dip in the bowl, let them put their fingers in the yoghurt, give them some soft cooked vegetables to hold and mush, or some nice squashy fruit pieces.

"And don't be too quick to wipe their faces and hands clean, even if they're a little worried about them being messy – distract them for a little while and then wipe later. There are also plenty of fun, simple and stress-free sensory food games that you and your little one can try out."

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