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Baby Self Feeding: Cues, Age And Tips to Encourage It

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Self-feeding refers to an infant’s ability to eat or drink independently, using fingers, a spoon, or a cup (1). Most babies between six and 12 months learn and practice this essential skill. Experts advise parents to encourage their babies to self-feed as soon as they start receiving complementary foods (2).

Self-feeding lets babies explore the food’s texture, practice their fine and gross motor skills, and improve eye-hand coordination.  Besides, it facilitates the baby’s personal and social development by encouraging a sense of autonomy. Baby self-feeding can be slow and messy initially, but persistent trials eventually payoff.

Read this post to know when your baby is ready to self-feed and how you can support their transition to self-feeding.

Cues That The Baby Is Ready To Self-Feed

Just like hunger and sleep cues, babies give cues for self-feeding. An infant is ready to self-feed if they(1) (3) (4):

  • Have good neck and head strength and can sit upright without support.
  • Show interest in feeding themselves by pulling a spoon or cup from you.
  • Can grasp and hold things with their palms and fingers.
  • Can bring their hand to mouth repeatedly.
  • Can move the food from the front of the mouth to the back.
  • Can swallow lumpy foods, such as coarsely mashed banana and sweet potato.
  • Can use a sippy cup for drinking independently.

Stages Of Baby Self-Feeding

Baby self-feeding is not attained in a day or two. Here’s how the self-feeding journey is likely to progress in most cases (4) (5).

  1. Around six and nine months of age, let your baby pick food using their palms (palmar grasp) and bring the food to mouth to eat. Spilling food will be high at this stage, but your need to be patient and persistent with your efforts. Make sure the baby’s hands are clean and thoroughly washed before they begin eating.
  1. Between nine and 12 months, the baby will develop their pincer grasp, a fine motor skill that will help them hold an object between their palms and fingers. It is when the baby should be getting opportunities to grab and eat bite-sized finger food with fingers. Around the same time, babies should also practice holding a spoon and drink from a cup without a lid.
  1. By 12 months, the baby will be able to drink from a cup without spilling much, and it is the time when they should get adequate opportunities to feed independently with a spoon. Use an age-appropriate, easy-to-handle spoon for babies.
  1. Between 12 and 14 months, with regular practice and encouragement, the toddler should be able to bring a loaded spoon to their mouth and feed independently.

While most babies should follow these timelines, some may take a little longer to self-feed with proficiency. Remember, every baby is different and may take their own time to learn and master a skill.

Tips To Support And Encourage Self-Feeding

Self-feeding is a new skill that babies can learn effectively with your support (6) (7).

  1. Involve your baby in family meals. An infant who watches you and other family members eat will feel encouraged to do the same. It will also allow you to monitor your baby while they practice self-feeding.
  1. Offer age-appropriate finger foods that are bite-sized, soft to chew, and easy to swallow. Some of the nutritious finger foods that babies can eat are bite-sized, thin slices of fresh fruits, such as papaya, mango, and peeled apple. Other alternatives include boiled potato, baked potato wedges, steamed or cooked veggies, soft cooked noodles or pasta, scrambled egg, and tofu
  1. Hone your baby’s pincer grasp by offering them food with different shapes and textures. They may drop the food many times but encourage them to pick the food and bring it to the mouth to eat. Additionally, focus on developing their pincer grasp during playtime by letting them hold objects of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. If needed, show your baby the way they can use their finger, thumb, and palm to grab and hold objects.
  1. Support your baby to first eat with fingers, then spoon or fork. Most babies find it easier to eat from a spoon than from a fork. You can also give a spork to your baby. A spork is a utensil that looks like a fork and spoon and can serve as a great tool to help progress from a spoon to fork.
  1. Use a two-spoon approach to help your baby learn self-feeding using a spoon. For instance, give your baby an empty spoon while you feed them from the other. Allow them to scoop out some food from the bowl or plate and self-feed. If the baby cannot scoop out the food, fill their spoon with food and hand it to them for self-feeding.
  1. Coat soft, slippery foods with small amounts of wholegrain cereal or Cheerios. A few examples of such food items are mango and kiwi slices. It will help your baby hold the pieces with relative ease. Gradually, as the baby begins picking and holding food comfortably, offer them uncoated foods.
  1. Offer liquids in a cup without a lid. It will help them understand how things can spill and what should be done to avoid that. This exercise involves a lot of trial and error on the baby’s part, so be patient and persistent.
  1. Praise your baby for each attempt. No matter how young they are, they can sense appreciation and love that you shower on them for doing something right. Do not scold them if they drop the spoon or spill the food. Instead, show them the right way to use cutlery and praise them for their attempts.
  1. Be patient and persistent in your efforts. The baby needs constant encouragement and recognition to learn a new skill, which takes time to master at their age. Calmly and consistently guide them about the correct ways of using utensils and self-feed eventually.

Precautions To Take While Helping The Baby Self-Feed

Self-feeding needs numerous attempts until the baby masters it. During this period, following some simple precautionary steps can ensure safe and effective learning (6).

  1. Clean the baby’s hands and put on a bib. It will prevent staining due to food spilling. Remove all the stuff, such as toys, while the baby is set to eat to avoid distractions
  1. Make the baby sit in a comfortable place, in an upright position. Crawling or cruising around while trying to self-feed poses the risk of choking.
  1. Learn the difference between gagging and choking to help the baby accordingly. Initially, while self-feeding, a baby may gag when they cannot move the food from the front of their mouth to the back. But choking happens when the food lodges into the baby’s windpipe and makes them gasp for air.
  1. Never leave the baby unsupervised while they try self-feeding. Sit with your baby and show them the correct way to use a spoon or fork. Let them observe you, and then try it out themselves.
  1. Serve food at a suitable temperature. Food served too hot or too cold may irritate or even hurt the baby, and they may refuse to self-feed.
  1. Avoid hard and sticky foods as they can cause choking. Large pieces of bread, whole grapes, cherry tomatoes, and big chunks of raw vegetables are a few examples of food that can be difficult for a baby to swallow. A few food items, such as whole nuts and seeds, may even increase the risk of choking.
  1. Serve a tablespoon or two of food at a time. Offering large amounts of food increases the chance of the baby filling their mouth with it and choking. Besides, most babies consume breast milk or formula while consuming weaning foods, thus negating the need for large amounts of solids.
  1. Use unbreakable utensils and cutlery, such as metal or plastic plates, cups, bowls, spoons, and forks to serve the food. It is a cost-effective way to let your baby practice self-feeding without worrying about the utensils falling and breaking, which might even hurt the baby.
  1. Use bowls with a suction cup at the bottom to prevent the bowl from tripping. Besides, such cups and bowls are often designed to make it easier for a baby to scoop out food from them.
  1. Give an angled spoon with a bulky rubber grip or a bulky baby fork with short and blunt tines. It facilitates a firm grip and also lets the baby practice self-feeding safely.
  1. Avoid wiping or cleaning the baby’s hands too often. Doing so could make them lose focus, causing a loss of interest in eating. It can also make a baby irritated and fussy, making it difficult for them to self-feed.
  1. Do not force the baby to finish all the food in the bowl or plate. When a baby is self-feeding, they are in control of their hunger and satiety cues. Even if you doubt your baby isn’t eating enough, let them practice self-feeding independently so that they can understand their cues better.

Self-feeding is a learning process that develops over time. Offer your baby ample support and never leave them unsupervised. Self-feeding can begin as soon as the baby starts consuming solids comfortably. First, offer various finger foods that the baby can grab and eat using the palmar grasp. Then, support the baby to transition to a spoon or fork, thus letting them self-feed independently.

References:

1. Self-Feeding Basics; Holt International
2. Feeding Guidelines for Infants and Young Toddlers: A Responsive Parenting Approach; Healthy Eating Research
3. Finger Foods for Babies 6 – 12 Months; British Columbia
4. Feeding Skills; Infant And Toddler Forum
5. Fingers, Spoons, Forks, and Cups; CDC
6. How to facilitate your young children to feed themselves? (From 6 to 24 months); FHS
7. Child feeding ages and stages; The Ellyn Satter Institute