Many don’t realize that premastication (or the practice of pre-chewing a baby’s food) is often practiced and has been around for thousands of years.
A few years ago, actress Alicia Silverstone earned flak online after posting a video of her pre-chewing her then 11-month old baby’s food. The video went viral and sparked all sorts of debates online. She also got attacked by a mob of moms online who mostly said they were disgusted by what they saw. But what many don’t realize is that premastication (or the practice of pre-chewing a baby’s food) is often done by mothers and has been around for thousands of years. How else did you think our ancestors fed toothless babies long before the advent of the trusty blender, food processor, and long before pureed baby food was available?
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What’s even more surprising is that premastication (also known as kiss feeding) is still being practiced in many communities in non-Western countries. Caregivers in some areas of China and Africa still turn to this practice to feed their babies. A study conducted by researchers from the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne, Australia that was published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that in Laos, different ethnic groups still practice premastication and it is done not just by the mothers but also fathers, grandmothers, and sometimes the baby’s siblings. This practice has been an essential part of family life and childcare in many ethnic communities in Laos. The cultural practice has been passed from one generation to the next for many years.
A separate study published on the Maternal & Child Nutrition Journal has found that the practice of premastication, although undocumented due to under-reporting, is so widespread even in modern communities in China. Researchers have found that the practice has been so common that up to 63% of Chinese university students received premasticated food as infants.
Why Pre-Chew Food?
Many researchers believe that premastication (prechewing) has been practiced by ancestors for most of human history. It is believed that the practice complements breastfeeding. According to anthropologist Gretel Pelto of Cornell University, prechewing provided the second link after breastfeeding. Babies, according to Pelto, require other sources of nutrients from non-milk foods at six months of age, but their teeth which they need to chew most foods, don’t come in until they’re 18 months old.
“During our long evolution as a hunting-gathering species, foods were not easily processed into a form that children without a full set of teeth could consume,” Pelto’s study explains. He believes that premastication prevent malnutrition by providing protein and nutrient-dense food to babies who are too young to chew solid food on their own.
Babies for instance start requiring more iron-rich food sources at six months and since human breastmilk contains very little iron according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Pediatric Association recommends giving exclusively breastfed babies iron supplementation. Back when iron supplements were still not available, it was through premasticated food that babies (who were not equipped to chew their own food) got their dose of iron and other nutrients.
Aside from helping babies access nutrients from solid food, according to Pelto’s study, premastication is culturally associated with showing affection. Mothers who practice premastication believe the practice is a way of showing love to their baby and strengthening their bond with their child.
Pelto and other scientists also believe that pre-chewing the baby’s food has immune-boosting benefits. By exposing the baby to pathogens in the mother’s saliva early on, especially while the child is still breastfeeding, it triggers the production of antibodies in the baby which makes them better equipped to handle pathogens later in life. They also believe that through early exposure, it may prevent the development of autoimmune diseases or prevent immunological hypersensitivity like asthma. Some scientists believe that the latter along with other forms of allergies develop due to low exposure to pathogens and diseases early in life.
Although there are also scientists who argue that the practice could be a potential mode of infection transmission. According to a study published in the American Journal of Pediatrics, HIV transmission has been associated with offering a child food prechewed by an HIV-infected caregiver. The practice, some scientists believe, could expose the child to blood from the caregiver’s mouth (in case he or she is infected with the virus and has bleeding gums) which thus can put the baby at risk of getting infected with diseases like HIV, syphilis, dental carries, and Hepatitis B.
According to the CDC, premastication has also been linked to transmission of group A streptococcus and has been found to be associated with increased risk for infection with Helicobacter pylori (bacteria that causes digestive illnesses), Streptococcus mutans (bacteria associated with tooth decay), human herpesvirus 8, and Epstein Barr virus (human herpesvirus 4). Therefore mothers with infections, especially HIV, are advised against premasticating their baby’s food to avoid disease transmission.
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