Whenever I share videos of my little ones eating, I’m always asked for tips for how to help babies and toddlers feed themselves. I’ve written a blog before all about cutlery tips for babies and toddlers, but in this blog I want to share a bit more about HOW to encourage self-feeding skills in little ones. I’ll also cover some of the most common scenarios that I’m often asked about when it comes to babies feeding themselves.
When should babies self-feed?
Something many parents want to know is “WHEN do babies learn to feed themselves with a spoon?” The answer, as with everything baby-related, is that there isn’t an exact age when babies and toddlers “should” be able to self-feed competently. All babies develop at different rates, and this applies to feeding skills as well.
Having said that, there are rough timelines when babies may start to show certain skills:
- Around 6 months, babies will open their mouth when offered a spoon. It’s really important that babies are developmentally ready for weaning when starting out – as this will really help with their ability to be able to learn to self-feed e.g. the development of hand-eye coordination
- Around 7 months babies will be able to close their lip over a spoon and clear foods from the spoon using their top lip
- Around 9 months babies may start to become more interested in self-feeding independently. Around this time they also begin to develop their pincer grip which allows them to use their thumb and finger to pick up smaller sized foods
- Between around 15 and 18 months most children will be able to spoon feed themselves fairly well, although some may be doing this before, and some may still take some time
What are the benefits of babies and toddlers feeding themselves?
The concept of “baby-led weaning” is one that has become SUPER popular in recent years. Baby-led weaning promotes offering babies pieces of whole foods and letting them feed themselves right from the start of weaning, as opposed to the traditional method of offering babies foods off of a spoon. I often talk about how I’m a big fan of a “best-of-both” approach. I love to offer babies both a spoon AND appropriate finger foods and let them explore. In my view, this method is truly “baby-led” as it allows little ones to experiment and also encourages using utensils from early on.
It’s VERY common for some babies to be all about the spoon and others to ONLY want to self-feed finger foods. It’s a good idea to follow your baby’s lead with this but at the same time, do keep encouraging and giving them practise with both.
Whether your baby loves or hates the spoon, it’s really important to allow them some independence and control with the spoon, right from the beginning. I know many parents are worried about the mess when allowing babies to spoon feed themselves, or use their hands with finger foods.
However, offering them the control with the spoon is an important part of babies learning to eat, and developing the necessary coordination to self-feed themselves. It’s also an important part of teaching your baby to follow their own hunger cues, rather than encouraging them to eat more (by holding out a loaded spoon), when they may be full.
Read more about the benefits of mess when weaning here.
How to teach babies to feed themselves with a spoon
Below are some of my tips for encouraging babies to feed themselves with a spoon:
- Role model – this is usually my number one tip when it comes to anything about teaching babies a new skill. Babies learn from watching us and so as much as we can show them HOW to use the spoon, the more they will pick up.
- Pre-load the spoon for them – it can be difficult, particularly very early on, for babies to coordinate scooping with a spoon. You can pre-load the spoon for them and hold it out for them to grab and then bring to their mouth once they get used to this you can help guide their hand to “scoop” out the food from the bowl too.
- Use multiple spoons – I often talk about the “two-spoon” technique. This means having one spoon for them and one for you and rotate between them. This can encourage a little more intake and helps to avoid babies getting frustrated when they can’t effectively load food onto the spoon themselves.
- Try a variety of spoons – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for what weaning equipment will work best for each baby. There are SO many varieties of spoons available – some of them bigger, some of them smaller and different babies will prefer different types of spoon. I do find, however, that early on, spoons on the smaller side (the part that goes into baby’s mouth), are generally easier for babies to manage. If the spoon is TOO large, then they may get too much in their mouth in one go, and it may simply be too big for their mouth, which can discourage them from using it.
- Practice makes perfect – it really is all about allowing babies and toddler the opportunity to PRACTICE their skills with self-feeding. Some of them may get to grips with it fairly quickly, whilst others will need a fair bit more time – both scenarios are perfectly fine! Try not to get disheartened if you feel your little one doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of it, just keep giving them plenty of opportunity to practice and they WILL get there.
Why is my baby not feeding themself?
It’s a very common scenario that some babies totally refuse being spoon fed and only want to use their hands or eat finger foods. Babies learn with their hands and it is a good idea to let them use their hands if they show interest. It can help them get used to a variety of textures and it’s all part of how they explore the new foods they’re being introduced. Trying a new food doesn’t always have to involve eating the food – picking it up and exploring the look, smell and feel of it all counts too.
If you have a baby who’s only interested in finger foods, try to follow their lead and let them explore. Carry on offering a spoon and use my tips above – especially plenty of role modelling – to continue gently encouraging them towards trying a spoon.
Which foods are best to practise self-feeding?
There are some foods that can help babies with practicing their self-feeding skills, simply as they are much easier to actually scoop with a spoon. Very thin consistencies can be quite difficult as they just drip straight off and babies can get frustrated that they’re not getting a lot. Some foods to try are:
- Yoghurt with nut/seed butter – mixing nut butter together with yoghurt can make it a little thicker, making it easier for babies to practice
- Porridge – porridge is usually nice and sticky which helps it stick to the spoon, rather than falling off when scooping
- Ricotta cheese – this has a slightly thicker consistency to yoghurt and so it sticks better to the spoon. You can also mix in some fruit or nut butter for adding nutrition and flavour. Ricotta is also a lower-salt option when offering cheese for little ones
- Mashed potato – mashed potatoes thinned just a little with milk can be a good texture for sticking to the spoon and helping babies scoop it up
- Risotto – this can often have a similar texture to porridge, and is nice and sticky when loading onto the spoon
- Avocado – mashed avocado has a thick and sticky texture which can make it good for scooping. Mix it together with mashed tinned fish for an extra boost of nutrition!
When to stop spoon-feeding baby?
Parents often wonder when they “should” stop spoon-feeding their baby. There’s no ideal time, but as we’ve covered, it’s a good idea to allow little ones some independence with the spoon right from the get-go. It’s also important if you are spoon-feeding your little one to move through textures fairly quickly, to get them used to a variety of textures early on.
My toddler has stopped using cutlery. How can I help them feed themselves again?
This is another very common scenario with toddlers. They may have just started to master using cutlery and suddenly they revert back to using only their hands. It can be very frustrating and parents often start to wonder, “should a 2-year old be able to feed themselves?”
It’s quite normal for children to use their hands, even when they can competently use a spoon or a fork. It’s often easier for them to get more food if they use their hands. It can also happen if they have a younger sibling who’s starting weaning and using their hands. Try not to pressure them into using their cutlery, as it’s unlikely to make them want to use it more. You can help by pre-loading the spoon for them to encourage them to try using it, and also simply to continue role-modelling you and others using cutlery at mealtimes.
Sometimes with toddlers, mixing up their utensils can help them to get interested. Try offering them new or different spoons/forks than what they’re used to – or offer them your own cutlery. They can find the novelty of using “adult” cutlery more interesting, and there’s no reason why they “have” to have kids’ cutlery once they are older and have more advanced skills when it comes to eating.
For more tips on feeding kids and plenty of family friendly recipes, my book How To Feed Your Toddler is available to buy now.