Teaching your baby to self-feed

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Baby learning to hold the spoon and eat by himself

Once your baby starts showing an interest in feeding himself, it’s critical to provide many opportunities for him to practice this skill. The key to mastering self-feeding is to let him try, try and try again.

A good way to start is to place a few pieces of food on your baby’s highchair tray. Let him feel it. It may seem as if he is just playing with it, but that’s actually how he learns. Initially, your baby may grasp for the food with a raking motion, using the entire fist to move the food toward his mouth. Eventually, he’ll develop a fine motor skill of grabbing the food with the thumb and forefinger, called the pincer grasp.

Setting aside time at the beginning of the meal for practice is a good idea, since his desire to eat will be stronger and may help in motivating him to bring the food to his mouth himself. If your baby gets frustrated, allow him to finish the meal and eat how he normally would. Just remember to keep trying at other meals throughout the day.

The foods you give your baby to practice self-feeding should be soft and easily mashed. Here are some ideas for first finger foods to try:

  • Small pieces of ripe, soft bananas, avocados, peaches or kiwi
  • Soft cooked sweet potatoes, peas, or carrots
  • Grated or soft cooked apples and pears
  • Soft cooked whole grain pasta
  • Cubes, strings, or small pieces of cheese
  • Shreds or small diced pieces of cooked chicken, fish or turkey

Foods that pose a risk of choking should be avoided. Examples include nuts, whole grapes, hot dogs, raw carrots, raisins, popcorn, and portions of food that are too large.

After your baby masters self-feeding with his hands, the next step is offering utensils. Most children become very proficient with self-feeding with spoons and forks between 18-24 months, but that doesn’t mean you need to wait until then to start exposing him to utensils.

Just as your baby needed a lot of practice eating with his hands, he will also need many opportunities to attempt eating with utensils. A good way to begin encouraging this transition is to give him his own baby or toddler-friendly spoon or fork. With practice, your baby will learn the motions and see the sequence of events that get the food into his mouth via the utensil.

Thicker foods like oatmeal or mashed sweet potatoes are good practice foods since they will more easily stick to the utensil. It will be messy for a while but just try to remember that the more practice he has, the more efficient he will become.

Once your baby has gotten the hang of dipping the utensil into the food and bringing it to his mouth, consider giving him his own small bowl. Allow him to feed himself from his bowl while still feeding him from yours. Once he is demonstrating that he is getting most of the contents of his bowl into his mouth, you can slowly give him more in his bowl while having less in yours, until he is eating most of the meal himself.

Remember, it is a learning process and it will take some time before your baby is neatly and proficiently feeding himself. In the meantime, have fun and be prepared to get messy!

What to Do

Let your baby practice

Whether it’s with his hands or with utensils, your baby will need many opportunities to practice self-feeding. Setting time aside at the beginning of the meal may help, since your baby’s hunger may motivate him to try harder to feed himself. If he gets frustrated, allow him to eat how he normally would, but try again later in the meal and certainly again at other meals throughout the day.

Encourage hand feeding

The first step your baby will take in self-feeding is to use his hands to move the food toward his mouth. Encourage this by placing a few small pieces of food on his highchair tray. Once he has begun successfully moving the food with his whole fist into his mouth, work on his pincer grasp. You can help encourage this by isolating one or two small pieces of food to allow him to try to use his thumb and forefinger to pick it up or take it from your grasp.

Encourage utensil feeding

During meals, give your child his own set of baby and toddler friendly utensils to hold. He may begin to imitate you by dipping it into the food and even attempting to bring it to his mouth. Encourage him to do so by placing your hand on top of his, guiding the utensil towards the food and then jointly moving it to his mouth.

Most babies will find it easier to get the hang of using a spoon before they do a fork. Be sure to allow many practice opportunities with both utensils.

Stay close to your baby during meals

It’s important to monitor your baby as he begins to eat more independently. He is not only getting used to a new way of eating, but new textures, too. Remaining by your baby during meals will allow you to monitor his tolerance for new textures and the amounts that he is putting into his mouth.

Recognize gagging vs. choking

Gagging is the body’s natural defense against choking and is to be expected when babies start eating solids. Gagging may occur if the baby has too much food in his mouth or if the food moves towards the back of the mouth before he has chewed it sufficiently. The gag reflex signals him to move the food back toward the front of the mouth.

Choking is when a piece of food becomes lodged in the airways; therefore, stopping breathing. Your baby may be silent, unable to cry or make a sound, show difficulty breathing, and perhaps flailing his arms. Choking is life threatening and requires immediate attention.

Expect and embrace the mess

Teaching your baby to feed himself will be messy. Invest in a few good bibs or apron type smocks that can better catch the food. Consider placing an old towel underneath the high chair if you are concerned with food falling on the floor. Keep a damp washcloth or paper towel by your side to help with spills.

Enjoy family meals

Babies learn from modeled behaviors. If your baby is eating meals with the rest of the family, he will observe how everyone else is utilizing their utensils to feed themselves, as well as other appropriate mealtime behaviors.

Be patient

Learning to self-feed takes time. Allow plenty of time for meals and never rush your baby to finish. He is eating at the pace where he is most comfortable and where learning is optimized.