Teaching your little one to feed himself is more than just the physical aspect of putting food in his mouth. It is also about being mindful and respectful of his needs. As parents we get fixated on what to feed our kids as opposed to how it goes into their belly.
Eating is more of an emotional and psychological experience for a child. He bonds with his parents and caregivers during his feeds.
So when it comes to helping him transition from being a fully breastfed baby to one who can feed himself independently, you must consider all these aspects together.
Teaching baby to feed himself: When to begin
To begin with, if you want your baby to feed himself, you should encourage self-feeding from the very beginning. Keep your eyes peeled for subtle signs that show your child’s readiness to feed himself.
These could include grabbing a spoon from your hands, or trying to scoop food by himself, or even getting messy with his toys. All of these are indicators of developing motor skills that he needs to feed himself.
How to know that your baby is ready to feed himself
1. Your baby learns to grasp
If you have finger-fed solids to your little one, chances are he will learn to grasp easily and quickly. In this type of feeding, you introduce finger foods or pinch the baby food with your finger and let your toddler bring the food close to his mouth.
Alternatively, you can place small bites of food in front of his feeding high chair and let him try to grab them on his own.
You can introduce this method as soon as your baby turns seven- or eight-months-old. Incidentally, this method leads a child to develop a pincer grasp. Simply put, a pincer grasp is when your toddler (eight to nine months) is able to pinch and hold objects between his index finger and his thumb.
Image source: File photo
2. When hand-eye coordination gets better
If your toddler is able to feed himself by scooping the baby cereal or forking a fruit out of a bowl then putting it in his mouth, it’s a sign that his hand-eye coordination is improving.
You can even practice it when he turns eight to nine months by placing the food in front of him and letting him eat it on his own.
Chances are, he will make a big mess. But the mess is part of his learning process. If he makes a mess, let him. He will eventually learn to eat properly and put the entire morsel in his mouth without dropping it all over.
3. He develops refined sensory skills
As mentioned earlier, the chances of your toddler getting messy during his mealtimes is quite high. But that’s a good thing.
When babies get messy and can feel the sensation of being sticky, warm, cold or hot, they are able to develop sensory skills. As they practice eating more, and explore different textures and tastes, this skill becomes refined.
Self-feeding also helps a baby learn what is known as kinesthetic sense. These are skills whereby we get an idea of our various body parts with respect to each other as well as our surroundings.
It is through this sense that you and I can touch our ears and nose with our eyes closed. Similarly, babies learn about the location of their mouth through this self-feeding method. They also gain muscle memory that guides them to pick up food and place it into their mouths each time.
4. Your toddler shows signs of independence
As kids grow, they start showing signs of independence. Refusing to eat from your hands, or trying to play without your assistance are just a few of these signs. Independence is a crucial aspect of growing up, and it is applied as a rule when your baby tries to feed himself.
This way not only do you allow him to be independent and develop his motor skills, but you also help him determine how much he wants to eat. After all, learning to stop eating when you are full is also a key skill for good health.
5. When he learns to use his mouth
Another sign that your baby is ready to feed himself is when he learns to properly use his mouth. Most kids are able to drink water from cups and through a straw even before they turn one.
You can encourage your child to do the same after he is about six months old. This not only allows him to develop better hand-eye coordination, but also makes him feel more independent.
Typically, by the time your baby shows these signs, he will also be able to sit by himself. But do not get too excited if he grabs food from your hands. Give him time to slowly experiment and learn.
Watching your child eat – noodle by noodle – for over an hour can be very frustrating for parents.
Teaching your toddler to feed himself: Why you shouldn’t rush it
While your baby learns to feed himself, you may want to keep a few things in mind while encouraging him.
- Teething. When you kid is starting out on solids, he may also be teething. At this stage his teeth will not be strong enough to bite on all kinds of food. Neither will he have enough for proper munching of food. So make sure that whatever you offer him is soft and warm.
- Food segregation. You may also need to identify the kinds of food that can potentially hurt or cause pain to his teething gums. At this stage his teeth and gums will be vulnerable, and food that has citrus should be kept at bay.
- Hunger pangs. Give your child food to eat when he is actually hungry. Just because you want him to learn a skill doesn’t mean he has to practice 24×7. It’s best to avoid foods with sugar and salt.
- Food amount. The amount of food your little one consumes will differ with each feeding. Since children grow in specific spurts, they might get excessively hungry on some days. On other days they may not like to each too much. So allow the child to dictate the amount he wants to consume.
They key to letting your baby feed himself is to allow him to experiment. On most days this means a messy high chair — or even the whole room. But that also means that he will learn the skill. Soon enough, he will be able to feed himself on his own.
This brings us to the topic of baby-led weaning.
Image source: Flickr
Initiate baby-led weaning to teach your baby to feed himself
Most babies start to reach for food by the age of six months. And as per World Health Organisation guidelines, you should exclusively breastfeed your child until then.
By this age, most babies will display self-feeding readiness signs as described above. Baby-led weaning is being embraced by more and more mums as a good way to start their kids on solids. In a nutshell, your baby feeds himself with no interference from an adult, and this is a great way for baby to learn how to feed himself too.
With this method, your baby will decide when he has had enough to eat. Your role is to provide him with suitably nutritious regular food, that is not the traditional watery pureed veggies, fruit or rice.
To know that your baby is ready for baby-led weaning, look for these signs:
- He can sit up unassisted or with little assistance.
- He should have good head control and fist grasp. And he should also have developed a pincer grasp.
- The tongue-thrust reflex should have disappeared.
To initiate the process of baby-led weaning, you can start by giving him age-appropriate amounts of food, cut up into chunks, fingers or lightly mashed.
Remember: Your baby should not be propped up or reclined because he will be eating whole food/s.
1. From 6-12 months
Your baby will enjoy different tastes and textures because it will be his first time trying them. But as always, keep it simple and avoid adding sugar and salt. You can let him enjoy the natural taste of the food item.
Some good foods to introduce around the 6-month mark are chunks of ripe banana or avocado, boiled or steamed green beans, baked apple slices with cinnamon, boiled brown rice and even chunks of roasted beets and zucchini.
You can get more creative as your baby grows.
2. From 1-2 years
By this age, you can prepare slightly more complex meals for him. You should ideally add two components to your toddler’s meals by the age of two. So for instance, you can make chicken curry and roti or bread.
Or you can go for traditional Singaporean toddler meals like healthy mini chicken wanton (potstickers), alphabet soto ayam (chicken noodle soup) or stir-fried beef with green beans and broccoli.
Alternatively, you can give him a lentil and rice mixture with curd, or just let him eat what you are eating, minus the sugar and salt.
3. From 2-3 years
By the time your baby touches the big three mark, you can get even more creative with his food. You may now add four components into his meals and make them similar to adult meals.
You can prepare one curry, bread and curd for instance, for just a single meal.
As for individual meal plans, here’s how you can approach it:
- Breakfast: Begin your toddler’s day with his breakfast, which can be structured just like an adult meal. You can try scrambled eggs, oatmeal with milk, sliced fruits or a cup of milk.
- Mid-morning snack: Two hours after breakfast, give your toddler a mid-morning snack. Make sure you do not include processed foods. You can give him fruits with cheese, flavoured yogurt or a glass of water.
- Lunch: For lunch, you can be a bit more creative. For a western meal, you can give him baked beans, steamed green vegetables or whole-wheat bread with avocado. If you want an Indian-inspired meal, you can try dal (cooked lentils) with roti/chapatti.
- Afternoon snack: An afternoon snack just three hours after his lunch will keep him active. You can give him small pieces of different fruit, hard-boiled eggs cut into small pieces or some slices of cheese and water.
- Dinner: Most toddlers like to have a small meal during dinner time because they have had all the essential nutrients during the day and are quite full. So you can give him sweet potato wedges, baked salmon, whole wheat couscous, diced steamed broccoli, shredded baked chicken or tomato soup.
- Bedtime snack: Just before your toddler goes to sleep, you can slip him a small meal. In which case, you can just give him something as light as half a banana or half a cup of milk. But if he feels hungry, you can add diced fruit or cheese.
Toddler meals where he feeds himself work best if you are aware of your child’s nutritional needs.
As far as learning to feed himself is concerned, there is no set window that dictates the amount of time it takes to learn how to feed oneself. Every toddler takes his own time. Your aim should be to let him feed himself at least 25 percent of the meal. Gradually move onto 50 percent and so on. Do not try to rush your baby’s mealtimes.
Helping your baby learn to feed himself is most certainly going to be a fulfilling experience for you. Soon enough he will eat by himself and you will miss these special bonding moments with him. So enjoy it while it lasts.
Sources: Dailymontessori, Candokiddo
ALSO READ: Introducing solid foods to your baby in 4 easy steps