"Help! My child stores food in her mouth without swallowing... what do I do?"

Clinical psychologist Rachael K Tan provides her expert opinion on the matter of kids storing food in their mouths. Keep reading to find out more...

child stores food in her mouth

Is your child a food-storer?

All you parents with toddlers and young kids — we are sure some of you may have experienced this problem: Your child is a food-storer.

No, she doesn’t store food in odd places around the house like she’s worried that World War III is about to break out and she’ll run out of food.

Instead, your child stores food in her mouth… for ages!

When a child stores food in her mouth without swallowing it, the whole exercise of feeding and mealtimes can be very frustrating for parents, and quite stressful for the child.

When this happens, mealtimes can potentially drag on for hours. Parents may lose their temper and the child may end up in tears or refuse to eat at all.

I spoke to Clinical Psychologist Rachael Tan about this rather common childhood eating issue.

In order for Rachael to clearly address the specific problem, we identify a common (hypothetical) scenario presenting the issue so Rachael can provide her expert opinion on the matter.

child stores food in her mouth

When you child doesn’t eat his meals or stores food in his mouth without swallowing, it can be stressful for both parents and child alike.

Here is the hypothetical scenario:

During every meal, my 3-year-old daughter stores food in one side of her mouth like a squirrel! I don’t know how to get her to swallow.

She will wait like this for ages and I have to constantly remind her to chew and swallow. I have tried eliminating all distractions and getting her to sit down at the table during mealtimes, but she just daydreams, or fidgets, and continues to hold the food in her mouth.

She can often take over an hour to get through a meal because of this habit, and mealtimes have become quite stressful because of this.

When I tell her I’m going to take her plate away after a certain amount of time, she gets very distressed and doesn’t want me to do that either.

She seems to prefer softer food, but now she is big enough to eat more varied textures, so I don’t want to give in to her requests for soft food all the time. She often needs to drink water to swallow her food.

What can I do to help teach her how to chew her food and swallow it in a reasonable amount of time? 

child stores food in her mouth

Find out why your child may be storing food in his mouth in the first place.

Here is Rachael’s advice and opinion on the hypothetical case study presented previously:

As a general rule of thumb, and if, as outlined in the case study, the child prefers foods with softer textures and needs to frequently drink water to swallow her food, I recommend first having the child checked by a qualified professional such as a General Practitioner or Speech Pathologist.

This will assist in identifying if the child’s difficulties are physical or otherwise. If they are determined by your assessing clinician to be physical, he or she will be the best person to provide you with a course of intervention to manage those difficulties.

If, however, it is verified that the child is perfectly healthy in this regard, then the following information may be useful to you before you seek additional assistance from a qualified professional.

Firstly, good job on making sure that distractions are removed. This is important for several reasons:

  • It teaches your child early on in life that mealtimes have a certain structure and that there is a time and place for everything.
  • It provides a context to practice important things like focus and impulse control. For example, not having the TV on in the background or giving your child an iPad to play on whilst they are eating means that they have to direct their attention fully to the mealtime process.
  • When a person (adults included!) is mindful of what they are doing, they can take in and process information better, which leads to more effective learning.
child stores food in her mouth

TV can be a big distraction during mealtimes, forcing your child’s focus away from her food.

If your child is paying more attention to Dora on her iPad whilst trying to feed herself, she is probably not paying much attention to her intake of food.

Thus, she is not learning what it’s like to gradually feel fuller as she eats more, or to control her spoon when scooping up food in preparation for her next mouthful so the food doesn’t spill over the side of her bowl.

Before you decide what the best way will be to teach your child to chew and swallow her food in a timely manner, you need to identify why she prefers to store her food rather than eat it.

The best way to gather clues for this is to look closely at what’s happening before, during and after mealtimes.

Here are some things to look out for, which could explain why your child may be choosing to prolong the eating process…

child stores food in her mouth

Do you praise your child when she actually does swallow her food?

Before mealtimes

If your child normally has a snack in between meals, she may be too full to comfortably ingest any more food at mealtimes. If you feel this may be the case, try to limit your child’s intake before meals.

A good place to start is to halve the amount of snacks you normally give her, so her routine is not completely disrupted. See whether this makes a difference at actual mealtimes.

During mealtimes

When you are trying to get your child to eat, does she get lots of attention as a result of your many attempts to get her to finish her meal?

Just like the TV, constantly talking to your child can also be a significant distraction from the task at hand. Your child may also be enjoying all the attention she is getting, and therefore be motivated to keep engaging in her squirrel-like eating behaviour!

To see whether this may be the reason for your child’s behaviour, try sitting with but only speaking to your child when she swallows her food, and give her lots of praise when she does this.

If your child’s behaviour is motivated by attention, she should soon learn that swallowing in a timely manner gets her lots of it, but storing food doesn’t!

This will also teach your child that talking only happens when mouths have been cleared of food (remember the “no talking with your mouth full” rule!).

child stores food in her mouth

Perhaps your child is stressed about something that happens after mealtimes and so stores food in his/her mouth to avoid whatever situation he is anxious about.

After mealtimes

Is there something that usually happens after meals that you think your child may dislike doing?

This could be naptime, a bath or perhaps this is the time when they are usually expected to spend time on their own while you wash the dishes.

If you find yourself struggling to get your child to do certain things soon after a meal (e.g. it shows because she cries a lot during this time), it is possible that the lengthy mealtimes are being used as a means of avoidance for your child.

If this is the case, try planning for something less aversive and more enjoyable after meals, and let your child know that as soon as they finish eating, they can engage in that activity.

You may want to provide the preferred activity in short bursts of time, so that you can use this same activity to encourage your child to be compliant with other tasks she would prefer not to do, like having a bath.

Termed positive reinforcement, this process will motivate your child to want to follow your instructions, and when the routine becomes a habit (usually after about 2 weeks of being consistent with it), you can start to decrease the level of reinforcement.

child stores food in her mouth

If you are really worried about your child’s food-storing habit, please seek the opinion of a professional.

When nothing seems to work…

If you feel you’ve played detective to the best of your ability and find that you’re still not able to solve the mystery of your child’s food-storage preferences, it would be beneficial to consult with a professional who is well-versed in the area of child behaviour management, such as a clinical or developmental psychologist.

We hope you found Rachael’s advice useful. Does your child store food in his or her mouth too? How do you deal with the issue? Do let us know by leaving a comment below. 

theAsianparent would also like to thank Rachael Tan for her expert opinion on this matter.