Paleo Diet: Should We Chew Our Children's Food?

Isn’t it funny how every time a celebrity does something that the rest of the world would deem “weird” or “silly”…..and it happens to get caught on video…..suddenly, everyone in the world is talking about it. Just the other day a video surfaced in th

e media, of Alicia Silverstone chewing her child’s food, and then spitting it into her child’s mouth. Both Mother and Child looked perfectly happy and natural doing it, but how safe, natural, or viable is this idea? Should we chew our children’s food, or let them do it for themselves?

As is often the case, Mark Sisson comes to the rescue with a post on his Mark’s Daily apple website entitled “Should You Chew Your Child’s Food”. It turns out, that all things considered, this might not be such a bad idea after-all.

Alicia Silverstone

“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?”

Make sure you go and read the whole article to get the whole effect, but here is a summary of the points that Makes in his post:

Free Mechanical Digestion - Babies can’t chew their food, but you can chew it for them. This action opens more surface area of the food, to allow the digestive enzymes in the mouth to do their thing, because your baby cannot do the same.

Oral Enzymatic Pre-Digestion – Again, babies don’t come out of the womb with a completely functioning set of pre-digestive enzymes in their saliva. Mark says, “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 – Not all bacteria in the mouth is detrimental….some of it can be beneficial, and even serve to bolster a child’s immune system. Pre-masticating your baby’s food might be a perfectly good way to transplant some of that positive bacteria into your child’s mouth.

Development of The Immune System – Breastfeeding is the most effective way to give your child’s immune system a boost, thanks to the immunoglobulin found in breast milk, but for a person who is not breastfeeding their child, pre-masticating their food might be a viable alternative.

The Downsides…

Transfer of “Bad” Bacteria – Sometimes with the “good” also comes the “bad”.

Transfer of Saliva Born Disease – Hepatitis G, Herpes, TT-Virus, Hepatitis B, and other viral diseases cold potentially be transferred from mother to child, just as easily as anything beneficial can be transferred. Mark says, “Again, it depends on the health of the caregiver”.

And finally his conclusion:

“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.”

I very much agree. Isn’t it funny how over time we have forgotten our origins so completely, that things like this come to disgust us. Technology and society has convinced us all that we are not part of the animal kingdom anymore…..that we are somehow “above” all that gross-ness now. It’s sad really. When I started with this whole ancestral health shtick, I started looking at things in a totally different light. Things that seem normal now, or even things that seem “odd” or out of place now, don’t necessarily look that way in an ancestral or evolutionary light.

We didn’t always have knives and forks, or even plates. We didn’t always have machines to grind up our food for our babies to eat with their toothless mouths. But we’ve always had babies. Babies, for as long humanity has existed in it’s present form, have pooped, pee’d, cried, slept, and needed to eat….even before there were diapers, pacifiers, cribs, and food processors. What did we do before the advent of these wonderful inventions? I imagine that we did what ever we could…..whatever worked…..which at the time was often incredibly crude and probably disgusting by today’s standards.

Would a

cave-momma have strapped a new piece of animal skin around a baby’s butt, every time it pooped? I doubt it…..maybe they let it poop wherever it laid, and just ignored the smell? People couldn’t have smelled very good back then anyway….it’s not like a shower was a priority for survival or anything. We pride ourselves on being so clean, and making sure that everything smells like roses…’s actually not natural at all. We’re animals, and we’re not supposed to always be perfectly clean, because we wash ourselves with chemicals that strip away the dirt and, unfortunately, the natural oils that protect our skin. Sometimes modernization and innovation isn’t fantastic is it.

So why is it so offensive to witness a mother chewing a child’s food, and then passing it into the child’s mouth? Probably because we haven’t seen that done in our society for hundreds of years. Long before anyone can remember, and long before there were cameras to capture the action, and spread it across the internet, so people could make fun of the “eccentric” star. I have to admit, the whole thing grossed me out too, because I’m a modern product of a society where we don’t chew leather to make our own clothes.

Now it’s not socially acceptable, because there are other, less disgusting alternatives for us to use, as the cultured, intelligent apes that we are. So what? If you want to spit pre-masticated food into your child’s mouth, go ahead and do it…’s your choice. Obviously Alicia Silverstone doesn’t care what people think, and nor should you. Maybe if more people start doing stuff like this, less disgusted stares will be directed at mothers who nurse in public. I thought it was gross, but after further reflection, I think it sounds viable, and life would be better if people were a little more accepting.

Should we chew our children’s food? I’m not going to, but maybe we need to remember our ancestral heritage, before we pass judgement on people like this.


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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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4 Responses to Paleo Diet: Should We Chew Our Children's Food?

  1. Misty April 19, 2012 at 10:28 am

    23 years ago I too chewed my baby’s food. For us, this wasn’t at all planned for nutritional benefit rather she would look at me like a little bird with her mouth open. I shared with her my chewed food and this then became habit. I must admit I was embarrassed to ever admit this act I began studying nutrition.

    I recently taught a baby food making class and when I shared this, I was able to confidently explain the benefit without embarrassment. I must admit, the parents were a bit mortified but not quite as mortified as when I explained the potential dangers of adding grains and formula to the diet as opposed to “pre-chewed” animal proteins, the very foods that assists the growth and development of the human brain.

  2. Misty April 19, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Correction “Until I began studying nutrition”

    • Barry Cripps April 19, 2012 at 3:35 pm

      very cool Misty! thanks for the comment!

  3. HeatherT April 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    The book “The Continuum Concept” talks in depth about how “diapering” worked in the pre-diaper cultures. Basically the babies aren’t diapered with skins, but soft stuff is padded into the swaddling, in colder climates. Or they are naked, in warm climates.

    However, the babies learn to control their bowels WAY ahead of where our kids do. The mother, holding the child, “knows” when the baby is about to pee or poop, and holds the baby at arm’s length to do their thing (and everyone laughs). The baby is never, ever alone, and generally is being carried by the mother, older sibling, or friend. One of the reasons we need diapers is because we basically ignore the baby most of the day, which is a reason why the kids grow up with way less “bonding” to their parents. Our babies tend to bond to their peer group, and stay “kids” forever.

    I carried my daughter around for the first year or so, and she was always next to me or some other adult. She grew up FAST and learned a whole lot by osmosis, and became a super-independent young adult. I didn’t chew her food for her, but she was eating off my plate mostly … she’d point to something and I’d mash it up for her. She never got most of the “kiddie” food until she got to school. It makes sense … the kid would know that whatever Mom is eating, is probably ok to eat.

    As for the germ issue: if you carry a baby around, and sleep next to the baby … the baby is going to get Mom germs for sure. So Mom-health is a big deal, and a good reason to have good health-care access for everyone.

    As for the “ewww” factor … wasn’t sake originally made by having young women chew rice, then spit it into a container to ferment? Saliva enzymes started the breakdown of the rice. I guess it was considered less “ewww” if it’s done by pretty young women.