Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 Apr

Should You Chew Your Child’s Food?

By now, you’ve probably seen the Alicia Silverstone pre-mastication video. It’s totally safe for work (maybe not for lunch, but your mileage may vary), but some viewers will find it a bit unsettling: Silverstone feeds her baby pre-chewed food directly from her mouth, just like a bird. I found it pretty fascinating and not at all upsetting. Before you recoil in disgust and/or horror, think about how people weaned babies before Magic Bullets, Vitamixes, Gerber baby food, and even mortar and pestles hit the scene. That’s right – they chewed their food for them. In a paper entitled “Premastication: the second arm of infant and young child feeding for health and survival,” Gretel Pelto speculates that pre-mastication was likely common practice among pre-agricultural groups and confirms that it continues today across every continent (PDF).

As to why this practice arose in humans but not other mammals, it’s the neoteny. Humans are born completely helpless, and remain so for several years (some would suggest “decades”). Newborn babies have no teeth and don’t even develop a decent set until about a year or later. This isn’t an issue at first, since they have access to plenty of delicious, nutritious breastmilk that goes down smooth. But because breastmilk is fairly low in iron (albeit a highly bioavailable form designed specially for infants), once kids run out of their pregnancy iron stores, they need a more reliable source of the mineral in addition to the milk. Nowadays, kids get iron-fortified rice cereal or baby vitamins or something silly like that, but before all that stuff, kids needed to eat iron-rich foods when the iron supply dwindled. What’s simpler and more effective for a hard-working hunter-gatherer who needs to feed her child some adult, iron-rich food – chopping up and crushing a strip of venison liver on a wooden plank with stone knives, or chewing it up and transferring it directly to the kid’s waiting mouth?

Okay, so there’s historical and evolutionary precedent for it, but is there any reason to chew your kid’s food today rather than whip out the food processor? Are there any extra upsides?

Free Mechanical Digestion

Since babies are rather limited in the tooth department, they can’t chew their food effectively, which is how most animals – humans included – mechanically digest their food. That’s why “baby food” is pureed; it’s a more socially acceptable (and financially lucrative) way of pre-chewing their food for them. And since the greater surface area of mechanically digested food bits exposes more of them to enzymatic action, pre-chewed food is more easily digested by babies (and adults).

Chewing your kid’s food is definitely cheaper than buying baby food, and it’s more time-efficient than making it in a blender or food processor.

Oral Enzymatic Pre-Digestion

Infants are born equipped with the enzymatic machinery to handle the simple sugars, animal fats, and animal protein in breast milk. They are not ready to digest a whole lot of other things, particularly dietary starch (which is often “baby’s first food” regardless). In humans who have it, salivary amylase predigests starch during the chewing process, initiating the conversion of starch into more easily assimilable carbohydrate derivatives like maltose (a disaccharide of two glucose units) and dextrin (a polysaccharide). Infants don’t come equipped with much salivary amylase right out of the box, so when a parent who wields the full array of salivary enzymes pre-masticates their food, the infant digests the food better. To get an idea of what kind of enzymatic digestion this pre-mastication is providing, let’s check the numbers:

In adults, salivary amylase (which predigests starch) is present in concentrations of 70-300 U/ml. Infants are born with “negligible” amounts, attain “appreciable levels” by 3 months, and reach 85% of adult salivary amylase levels by five months (PDF). Since Alicia Silverstone feeds her kid a vegan diet, presumably rich in fruits and starches, pre-mastication is a sound tactic.

There’s also lingual lipase, which breaks down long-chain triglycerides into glycerides and free fatty acids. Infants have lingual lipase at birth, but they have very little gastric (gut) lipase. Since babies absorb far less dietary fat than adults (65-80% versus more than 95%), a little extra lingual lipase activity provided by the pre-masticating parent combined with the kid’s lingual lipase could improve absorption rates. Hey, maybe that’s what’s causing infant obesity – a wave of pre-mastication sweeping the nation!

Unless you’re drooling into your Vitamix, the parent who pre-masticates may be giving her kid a digestive advantage.

Transplantation of “Good” Oral Bacteria

Over 700 species of oral bacteria have been identified from human mouths, and the oral microbiome of any given individual may house from 30 to more than 100 different species. While oral bacteria can trigger the development of dental caries and periodontal disease, it’s not all “bad.”  For example, many strains of oral bacteria taken from healthy children actually provide protection against harmful oral pathogens and are being developed as oral probiotics. Other strains have been shown to directly influence the immune response in gum tissues, as well as protect the host from oral pathogen-induced apoptosis and inflammation.

I wasn’t able to pull up any explicit references to pre-mastication as a transplantation method for “good” bacteria, but there is evidence that mouth to mouth contact between mother/father and offspring can transfer pathogenic cavity-causing bacteria to the child. If the “bad” can be transferred, why not the “good”?

Development of the Immune System

Saliva contains the very same antibodies found in breastmilk, like immunoglobulin A, immunoglobulin G, and immunoglobulin M. These help establish the budding immune system and provide passive resistance to pathogens, including bacterial infections and viral infections. There’s very little research on the impact of saliva-borne immunoglobulins on infant health, but we do know that breastmilk-borne immunoglobulins are crucial to the development of an infant’s immune system, so it seems likely that pre-mastication is also helpful (especially since both breastmilk and pre-chewed food enter a child through the same orifice).

Perhaps it’s even a way for non-breastfeeding mothers to give their child a leg up.

Are there any downsides?

Transfer of “Bad” Oral Bacteria

As I just mentioned, a parent with dental disease caused by bacteria could transfer the same bacteria to their child by pre-chewing his food. If the bacteria takes hold early enough, it could be difficult to dislodge it. The same could just as easily be said for the early transfer of good bacteria, though, so it’s impossible to say who “wins.”

It all depends on the oral health of the pre-masticator.

Transfer of Saliva-Borne Disease

Transfer of saliva-borne diseases is a possibility. Those include hepatitis G, herpes, TT-virus (which is widespread and seems pretty harmless), hepatitis B (although the hepatitises are present in low amounts in saliva), and there’s mixed evidence that pre-mastication can and has transferred HIV from caregiver to child, although that probably requires an open sore or wound in the mouth.

Again, it depends on the health of the caregiver.

Pre-mastication appears to be a valid, viable way for Ma (or Pa) to deliver food to a baby’s maw. There are some impressive potential health benefits, it might save money, and it could even bolster immunity. The potential downsides, however, must be considered. Overall, I don’t think it’s necessary for parents, and the social pariahism you’re likely to face may not be worth the trouble, but I certainly find it intriguing.

How about you, folks? Would you – or have you already – pre-chew your kid’s food?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. My husband and I often chewed and broke up pieces of food with our teeth for our babies… probably because it was just easier than getting a knife or blender or whatever. Great to know that it might have even been beneficial to them :)

    allison wrote on April 18th, 2012
    • Us too Allison! I remember many times pre-chewing things like meat and chicken for our son, mainly out of convenience!

      mars wrote on April 18th, 2012
  2. Pre-mastication… a primal approved “processed” food.

    Primal Texas wrote on April 18th, 2012
  3. I made all my now-21-year-olds baby food from scratch in a blender, but meat was disgusting done that way. So both her dad and I pre-chewed her meat. Its not hard to be subtle at a party or a restaurant. She grew up, went through a teenage vegetarian stage, but came back from the dark side and is now a socially-aware, animal loving, biology majoring carnivore. By the way—this is the only time that I’ve read the first paragraph of a MDA posting and went straight to the comments!! I figured they would be amazing.

    Trish wrote on April 18th, 2012
  4. No

    Ben wrote on April 18th, 2012
  5. WOW! Thats really interesting stuff, as a father I don’t find it that weird, and as with regards to Alicia Silverstone, in comparison to other celebrity fades, there are definitely stranger things happening, LOL!

    Luke Havard wrote on April 18th, 2012
  6. I’m still not on board with this. I don’t care what history you lay out. Not every parent has a healthy mouth (smokers, drinkers,etc) and to spit food into their baby’s mouth? It’s disgusting. We’re no longer in the dark ages.

    Elana wrote on April 18th, 2012
  7. I’m a mom that does this because feeding my baby (who is 9mo) mostly veggies and fruit kind of requires it…I don’t do rice/oat or any other kind of cereal and if the meat isn’t ground meat I’m not sure how he’d be able to process it at all. I didn’t think twice about it, glad to hear it’s good! Figure I’m building his immunity too…I know the food I buy is higher quality than what gerber uses most likely too so I definitely feel good about it. :-)

    Kristin wrote on April 18th, 2012
  8. This post makes perfect sense to me. I wish I had found WAPF before I had kids… I gave them cereal, homemade cooked squash, applesauce and yobaby organic yogurt. They were breastfed for 18 months as well.

    Valerie H wrote on April 18th, 2012
  9. Well, it doesn’t have as much appeal as breastfeeding, that’s for sure.

    Zen Patriot wrote on April 18th, 2012
  10. Its amazing how disconnected we are from nature these days – great post Mark!!

    mark wrote on April 18th, 2012
  11. I prechewed food for my babies. I just thought of it myself. I nursed them on demand, carried them a lot, slept in the same bed with them. It just felt natural to prechew the food for them when they showed interest in my food. I guess it was not as fun to witness, judging from my husband’s reaction. He loves to describe it to the girls now. I think it’s interesting that I had never heard about it, yet it came totally naturally to me. I had no issue with it and the girls didn’t either. I used fingers to feed them the prechewed food. The whole process was much easier and cleaner than using blenders; and cheaper than buying baby food. They both nursed for a long time and took to food gradually. We mostly ate homemade, organic food so it was the best they could get. I always wondered if other mothers did this!

    Renata wrote on April 18th, 2012
  12. With my two year old, I made all of her food in the blender or used a fork to mash right before feeding her (avocado, banana, pear). I have a 4 month old who’s just starting to try food. Since it’s mashed sweet potatoes, as I mash it I add some of my saliva because saliva/mastication is a necessary step in digestion. Would I chew it and spit it out? Probably not.

    Yet, no one thinks twice about spitting on a napkin and wiping a kids face.

    Kari wrote on April 18th, 2012
  13. Hey – I was doing this 28 years ago when my babies were wee ones! It saved time and money and none of the three are worse for wear this many years later. Now that I am “primally aware” and see what my daughter is feeding my grandbaby (and groan inside seeing the cereal-path that she is beginning) I’m hoping to gently educate without causing WWIII. I suggested pre-mastication to her two weeks ago, and after the first look of horror crossed her face, I informed her that she had been fed that way by me. She is beginning to see the benefit and convenience. Now if I could just purge her house of all things grain… too bad CW has such a grip.

    Cathy wrote on April 18th, 2012
  14. I have done this with all of my girls. Oldest is 21 and youngest is 3. I think that it’s a beautiful act of love.

    Nicole wrote on April 18th, 2012
  15. Huh. I never really thought about it being gross; I pre-chew my baby’s food all the time. I don’t feed it to him mouth-to-mouth, but instead use my fingers to put it in front of him or in his mouth.

    Elizabeth wrote on April 18th, 2012
  16. Jane said coquettishly,”I was just using you for your good oral bacteria!”
    It wouldn’t be the last time Phil’s perfect teeth got him into trouble.

    Alexander wrote on April 18th, 2012
    • Lol! :-)

      Violet wrote on April 18th, 2012
    • HAHAHA

      Martine wrote on April 19th, 2012
  17. I haven’t done this although I did nurse my kids beyond the “accepted” North American time frame.
    Quite frankly if I had thought about it, I might have. Seems to make sense.
    People get bent out of shape about dumb things IMO.

    I likely wouldn’t to watch a mom doing this at a restaurant when I am eating but otherwise I say it’s no skin off my nose.

    Geri wrote on April 18th, 2012
  18. My mother did this to me and I assume my older brother. We are fine

    Serenity wrote on April 18th, 2012
  19. Sometimes when I can’t find a clean knife, I cut my daughter’s grapes in half with my teeth, or take bites out of an apple for her. My daughter doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, we’ve shared many apples. But I never thought to do full mastication.

    Joseph S. wrote on April 18th, 2012
  20. Haven’t done it but most definitely considered it….just never needed to. I think it’s a GREAT, natural way to start feeding babies, but i also agree with Baby Led Weaning which is the “tactic” we used with my daughter. She didn’t eat much solid food until she was 1–just relied on my breastmilk. As we introduced food, we just kept the sizes large so she could hold it herself and take tiny bites or bite/suck on the meat and veggies. They actually do great this way!

    Geneva wrote on April 18th, 2012
  21. Kudos to Alicia SilverstoneI I hope her sharing her predigested baby feeding starts a new trend. My own mother who was born in 1905, prematurley in the 7th month,was fed this way. She grew up to be a very strong, and healthy woman who lived a long life. She passed away at 97 years old. Had I been fed this way, perhaps I would suffer with less digestive problems.

    Ingegerd wrote on April 18th, 2012
  22. I did that sometimes with my 2 boys. When they were ready they started eating regular table food themselves, but if it was something hard I would chew it up some for them. We skipped all the jars and purees. It was super easy and cheap.

    Kathy wrote on April 18th, 2012
  23. We’ve never done baby food. It’s pricey, not great nutrition, and our kids always preferred our food.
    Never chewed it for them, too much work.
    If your food is nutritious, fresh, your kid will be much better for them than some bottled and over-boiled fruit or veggie puree.

    Lee wrote on April 18th, 2012
  24. Yes siree indeed, I have bird fed my little cherubs before. If I am correct, I believe that one of the roles of grandparents in Japan was to premasticate the infants food.

    kenneth wrote on April 18th, 2012
  25. Sadly, there are people in this country who think breastfeeding is gross. Trust me, I have run head on into them!
    I have pre-chewed my children’s food, when no other form of cutting was available. That’s what those incisors are made for, right?
    I have more of an issue of Alecia Silverstone feeding her children a vagan diet than I do with her pre-chewing her children’s food. Not that I have any place to judge anyone for how they raise their kids. Is vegan a choice I would make for my family, no. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available to anyone who wants that choice.

    lazrguppie wrote on April 18th, 2012
  26. -“Delicious” breast milk? How do you know? Lol…great post! 😀

    Jeannie_5 wrote on April 18th, 2012
  27. I think it’s fine. When both my children were under two I did some pre-mast, but usually things that they would otherwise choke on like nuts, croutons, and chips. My dental hygiene was always good. Everything else like fruits and vegies were mashed. Eggs can be soft, tuna can be mixed with yogurt / oatmeal. I do think the food processor sounds good for some foods that are heavier. When kids are about 2-3 they look at you like your wired if you pre-chew it, Eww ; ) Anyway it was a type of bonding that was sweet. I wouldn’t have chewed meat or given it to them other than processed, just my take on it. Besides my wife is vegetarian and would have totally freaked. : ) From what I’ve heard, bad bacteria has a hard time surviving in other healthy mouths. But yes, things like herpes and hepatitis can be transmitted I’m sure. So health is of utmost importance here.

    Kevin wrote on April 18th, 2012
  28. I did this on occasion when my (now 15 year old) daughter was a toddler. My father is a living-history buff who participates in reenactments of events in the late 1700s. These are very period-correct events, so even things like modern prescription eyewear are a no-no. I have to admit it was pretty instinctual to tear a leg off the freshly roasted chicken, bite some off, chew it a bit and hand it to her (I put it in her mouth with my fingers). She was hungry, I am Mom…there wasn’t any thinking about “how do I make babyfood in the middle of the woods 50 miles from the nearest grocery?” or “is this socially acceptable?”. It was just a natural thing I guess, and considering I was sitting around a camp with people scrubbing their teeth with split twigs and skinning whatever they had killed that morning, socially acceptable wasn’t really an issue.

    MJClark wrote on April 18th, 2012
  29. There is no need to chew your kids food. We eat a primal diet and have never had to resort to pre-chewing. Our daughter, now 195 months old had breast milk exclusively until 9 months when we slowly transitioned to supplement with solid foods. Her first food was grass fed butter, beef tallow, and coconut oil form a spoon @ 9 months. 9.5 months we added in pumpkin mixed with coconut milk at 1:1. At 10 months we added avocado and egg yolks. At 12 months, we added full eggs, ground beef, fish, chicken, and sausage. At 13 months she ate anything we ate at dinner. veggies stir fried in coconut oil(squash, egg plant, tomato, turnips, red beets, orange beets, etc…) From the 13 months, she has always ate about an egg a day in the morning and probably averages about 2-3 large avocados a week. Around 15-16 months old we started to bring in starches with sweet potatoes, very limited rice, and very limited white potatoes. People, always comment how much she eats and how she eats anything we give her. Shes 55 percentile for height and 25 percentile for her weight.

    Joseph wrote on April 18th, 2012
    • 19.5months old right now

      Joseph wrote on April 18th, 2012
    • Egg yolk is great. That was my daughter’s first solid food. That was even before we turned Primal. Even then we thought the rice cereal advice given by doctors just sounded wrong. How could drab rice cereal be the healthiest thing for a child when things like egg yolks and milk are designed specifically by nature for kids, and are naturally high in fat because that’s what kids need.

      Joseph S. wrote on April 18th, 2012
      • Exactly, it was also nice to have our pediatrician agree with our feeding style. He liked how we gave her fat and cholesterol to help her development. He also mentioned there was no need for us to introduce rice or typical kid snack foods, since she was getting plenty of cals from all the fat. Having a fat and protein filled diet, also has given us the advantage of our daughter never wanting snacks just main meals. We tried giving her a bit of juice a couple times while on vacations and she spits it out. I think it was too sweet since she basically has never eaten sugar. She does love her berries though and its a food that she can easily eat on her own.

        Joseph wrote on April 18th, 2012
  30. Hmmm if my saliva is beneficial then I’d rather toss baby’s meal in the vitamix and then spit in it after hahaha! pre-mastication is a bit too weird for me

    caitlin wrote on April 18th, 2012
  31. I started eating primal after my first 2 kids were born, but before my third. With the first two, I remember trying to grind up meat and them not appreciating the texture (dry and crumbly plain, or lumpy when mixed with something) so I just put off meat until they could chew, maybe until 18 months, and gave them mashed black beans instead for some protein. Well, with my third, I knew better and I knew I wanted her eating meat much sooner. I tried blending again, and it was awful again. So I ended up pre-chewing it for her and then hand feeding her. It was so easy and I could control the consistency and moisture level and she liked it. She’s now 15 months and can chew her food on her own, but for the first 8 months she was eating solids, it was a super easy way to give her meat. I wish I had done it with my other two! But, in hindsight, there were a lot of things I wish I had done with my other two, foodwise. we’re trying to make up for it now, and they’re doing pretty good.

    On a side note, it was slightly strange chewing food and tasting it and then, 15 minutes later, realizing you hadn’t actually eaten very much of it. To get a normal meal I felt like I was eating for a long time!

    Meesha wrote on April 18th, 2012
  32. I pre-masticated some of my 3 children’s food until I saw fit; it was occasionally necessitated and I didn’t think twice about it. As many times as I would say chew it up well it was evident food didn’t stay long in the mouth. Don’t tell them. No big whoop. Healthy kids at my house.

    Amy wrote on April 18th, 2012
  33. We don’t fully pre-chew, we call it “pre-chop”. For food that’s too hard or too big, we sometime “chop” it with our front teeth and give it to our babies. This happens mostly, when on the road or when we don’t have the tools (knife, fork, blender) available at the time. It’s a bonding process for us too. As long as the caregiver is healthy, I don’t see a problem.

    Betty wrote on April 18th, 2012
  34. I have no problem pre-chewing my children’s food. We’re long past those days now though, as my daughters are 7 and 9. But back in the day, I occasionally did it, and didn’t think too much about it. Seemed pretty natural at the time.

    Craig wrote on April 18th, 2012
    • You should try it again now just to see the reaction :)

      Joseph S. wrote on April 18th, 2012
  35. I always pre-chewed my son’s food when he was a baby. It was a no-brainer really. It was just easier, we sat together and I would pick bits off my plate and feed them to him.

    He could also get his own finger foods (which is important for dexterity and practice), but most of those ended up barely chewed and dropped on the floor until he was about a year old.

    EvansMama wrote on April 18th, 2012
  36. Yes, I did chew all three of my kids’ food. I am of native american heritage and this is just how it is done. Never gave it a second thought.

    Arionna wrote on April 18th, 2012
  37. Thank you so much for this!
    Having read the Clan of the Cave Bear Series during my pregnancies (my kids are 2.5 years apart), I felt very ‘primal’ as a pregnant person, and as a mother of infants. That was WAY before I ever knew about paleo eating or fitness (2000 & 2002).

    I didn’t plan on pre-chewing. It started when a two-year old cousin had given my infant a corn chip! I was scared she would choke, and I told my little niece not to give the baby food. But man did my kid cry after that. She was probably 6 months old, had tried crappy rice cereal and hAted it. Had eaten some baby-jar fruit and sorta liked it, but she was ready for more FLAvor. So the (planted by the Cave Bear Series) thought occurred to me to chew my food, and form a bite sized morsel, with proper moisture content to form a little ball between my fingers, and I gave my infant pozole (mildly spicy pork and hominy soup) at Christmas time with my husband’s family. BIG hit. BIG. HUGE hit. She loved it and there was no stopping us after that.
    It made sense to me to chew for them because I didn’t have to worry about them choking. Also I knew they got enzymes which would help their bodies breakdown food, plus I knew then that they got beneficial bacteria from it.
    Interestingly, as the child gets older, the milk thins out considerably and becomes much more watery as the evolutionary machinery ‘knows’ the child needs more water and electrolytes, and less ‘food’ in the milk. Both my kids nursed at will up to 12 and 14 months.

    In my house we’ve always had a ‘you eat what I eat’ mentality. My kids have known since birth that whatever I am eating, they wIll get to share. I think pre-chewing prepared them for that somewhat. The thought never occurred to them to ask me for different food. And by the time they found out that some of their friends do that, they knew the drill. They LOVED the food I gave to them, and yes, like little birds, opened their mouths to get more as fast as I could get it ready.

    I never thought of mouthing it like the video… Not saying it’s bad, but I do think that’s probably the part that people balk at most. In public places you would have had to be staring directly at me to have known what I was up to with my alert, but quiet and contented baby on my lap…

    Oh and between nursing and this, we spent about $10 total on both kids for actual jars of ‘baby food’. For use in the RARE occasion we left our girl(s) with a sitter.

    Thanks again, Mark, for your entirely primal take on this practice. I wouldn’t change a thing about it from my experience!

    Jenn wrote on April 18th, 2012
  38. (raising hand, me, me, me!) I prechewed food for my children. Frankly, I was too lazy to prep food in a blender for them, and I wanted them to be a part of what was happening at the table *and* experience what was being eaten at the table, to taste the same tastes. I also wanted them to eat meat, and prechewing their food just made that all very easy for me and them. I remember reading a bio about a woman who grew up in Montana, she described seeing a Native American mother outside a burger shop prechewing her burger and sharing with her baby. That’s about the only validation I’ve seen of this practice besides perhaps The Continuum Concept (not sure if it’s in there, either) until this post today. Thank you!

    Nita wrote on April 18th, 2012
  39. Interesting side note on pre mastication …. anthropologists ( notably Desmond Morris ) have theorized that it is the basis from which kissing evoled.

    shane wrote on April 18th, 2012

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