Being able to self-feed during mealtime is a major milestone for your little one, and for you! By encouraging your child to feed himself you’re going far beyond nutritional benefits of the food being eaten, you’re helping your child to develop fine motor skills through touching, grasping, squeezing, and of course, dropping. In addition, self-feeding allows your child to develop sensory skills, too, as he explores taste, texture, smell, color, and temperature.
When you begin, start with finger foods and introduce other items gradually. As baby transitions into a toddler, try introducing utensils and possibly a napkin. It’s important to know that every child develops differently, so if your toddler still prefers you to feed him, don’t panic. Just remember to provide as many opportunities for self-feeding as possible to encourage and practice independent eating.
To use as a guide, here are some age appropriate skills during meal time:
- Baby can bite soft cookie
- Baby can drink from straw but may bite straw while doing so
- Baby begins to drink from open cup with an adult holding the cup
- Baby begins to move food from one side of mouth to other to chew
- Baby begins to use thumb and tip of index finger (“neat pincer” grasp) to pick up small food items and can finger-feed at least half of a meal
- Baby holds spoon to play, bang, and mouth
- Toddler bites on hard or crisp cookie
- Toddler drinks from a cup
- Toddler starts to close lips while chewing
- Toddler dips spoon in food and brings spoon to mouth
- Toddler can hold own open cup and is able to pick it up, drink, and set it down with good control
- Toddler can finger feed an entire meal and continues practice with utensils
- Toddler chews food completely, including meats
- Toddler feeds self with spoon with some spillage
- Toddler uses tongue to clean lips
- Toddler drinks from a straw using lips
- Toddler moves food from one side of mouth to other
For better success at mealtime, be sure that you’re ready before bringing your child to the table. By taking a few necessary steps you can avoid a multitude of disasters, including a hangry kid screaming for food. Here are a few simple tricks:
- Be prepared: Have all food and gear ready prior to your toddler sitting to eat. This would include a high chair or booster, plates, bowls and cups, child-size utensils depending on age, and maybe a placemat for easier cleanup.
- Meaningful mealtimes: Children like predictability, so try to keep a regular schedule for you and your family to enjoy meals. Three meals plus snacks at the same time each day is a target to shoot for. Also, while it’s tempting to multitask during a meal as baby is occupied, be present and take the time to interact, help and encourage your child to eat with you and other members of the family.
- Food for thought: While encouraging mealtime independence, it’s important to serve the right foods for ultimate success. Soft foods and squeeze pouches are always a good idea when starting out, and then slowly work on incorporating other foods as baby grows and masters more skills. Try not to serve more than baby can handle; start with a small portion and let your little one ask for more if he’s still hungry.
- Forgive the mess: Prepare yourself, things can and will get messy. Invest in a few good bibs and keep a damp cloth handy for quick spills and cleanups. Most of all, remember that as frustrating as messes can be, it’s only temporary!