Teaching Baby To Feed Himself: Why It's Worth The Mess & How To Start Today

Baby mealtime tips from a pediatric OT. CanDoKiddo.com

Here are a few common types of complaints I hear from parents of early feeders:

My baby stopped taking food from a spoon once he started finger-feeding!
I gave my one year old a cup but he dumped it all over the floor - back to the sippy cup, I guess.
 I offer my 18 month old the spoon but he wants me to do it for him.
She doesn't want to touch wet or sticky foods and holds her hands up to be wiped a lot. 

My preschooler doesn't know how to use a fork because we haven't let him use one. 

It's easy to get so focused on what foods you give your baby and overlook the importance of how your baby eats those first foods until problems arise. One of the three principles of my Fast Track To Solids approach is encouraging self-feeding skills at every meal right from the start. 

Why Are Self-feeding Skills Important?

Promote Grasping Skills

a pediatric OT's guide to teaching your baby to feed himself. CanDo Kiddo

Because baby toys must be large enough to not be swallowed or choked on, finger-feeding is one of the only early opportunities your little one will have to develop fine motor skills using small manipulatives.

I disagree that a pincer grasp should be a prerequisite for eating Puffs and other dissolvable solids (I suspect the packaging label is rooted more in liability than child development). It is most often through the process of finger feeding that the pincer grasp emerges.

Develop Hand Eye Coordination Skills

Learning to scoop cereal in a spoon, stab a green bean with a fork and steer a loaded utensil to the mouth are all great ways for your baby to practice hand eye coordination skills , or "Visual Motor Skills" as OT's like to call them. Because feeding is SO motivating for most kiddos, they tend to work hard and persist in the face of challenging motor tasks.

Refine Sensory Processing Skills

Getting messy at mealtimes doesn't just make for great photo ops - it's great for developing tactile (touch) sensory processing skills. Babies learn that feeling sticky, slimy, cold and warm on their hands and face is okay. Early sensory play helps babies develop sensory thresholds - learning what inputs feel SAFE and COMFORTABLE (and what feels like TOO MUCH or TOO LITTLE input). Children with atypical tactile thresholds often present as very picky eaters, bothered by seams or tags in their clothing, and/or distressed during every day grooming tasks like brushing teeth and hair. 

Self-feeding also helps babies develop the kinesthetic or proprioceptive sense. This is the sense that tells you where your body parts are in relation to each other and to the world around you. It's the sense that allows you to touch your nose with your eyes closed and to button your coat without looking. Babies learn where their mouths are (through some pretty hilarious trial and error!) and gain muscle memory for the arm movements of bringing food and utensils to the mouth.

Encourage Independence

As I discuss in the first Fast Track To Solids post, independence is an important aspect of early childhood. By allowing your baby to be an active participant in mealtimes, you help avoid potential mealtime power struggles and behaviors (including throwing). Many parents ask me why their baby stopped accepting foods from the spoon once they started finger-feeding...I think it's usually a case of "I want to do it all by myself!". 

You also empower your baby to determine how much food he eats. I think we can all agree that learning to stop eating when you're full is a lifelong skill for health and wellness! A reader recently shared this resource from the Ellyn Satter Institute and I think it's a great read for parents: Division of Responsibility in Feeding.

Support Oral Motor Development

While there is nothing wrong with teaching baby to drink from a straw, many children today are well into their toddler years before their parents even introduce an open cup. Most parents don't realize that babies less than a year can learn to take sips from an open cup. 

Open cup drinking helps babies refine more skills than straw drinking, especially jaw stability. It also encourages neck control for the appropriate head tilt to sip, encourages two hand use (bilateral coordination), and helps baby refine the kinesthetic/proprioceptive skills to tilt the cup appropriately. 

What about sippy cups? Read what the American Speech Language Hearing Association says about how sippy cups aren't great for babies. I'm a big fan of moderation in parenting, and I don't judge anyone for using a sippy cup on occasion. But I do want parents to realize that there are other options and that it's important for babies to learn to drink from open cups, too.

How Do I Teach My Baby To Feed Himself?

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Teach Baby To Finger Feed Solids

Here are three ways to offer finger foods (you don't have to move through these in a progression):

  • you pinch the food and let baby bring your fingers to her mouth
  • you hold the piece of food and let baby grasp from your fingers - this often elicits a pincer grasp before baby uses this fine motor skill to get food from a flat surface 
  • place a bite or two on a surface in front of baby, for independent attempts

Watch as, over the course of weeks and months, your baby moves from a raking grasp eating food from the middle of her palm to a raking grasp eating food from the palm near her index finger and thumb (as in this video) to using a pincer grasp. Sometimes there is an additional pinch grasp just before a true pincer appears when baby uses her thumb against the side of her index finger - a lateral or key pinch. 

Teach Baby To Use A Spoon

Your best bet for teaching  spoon use is to get a lightweight spoon with a handle long enough for you and baby to hold (we love our Bambu spoons {affiliate}). Here's a nice progression to use for teaching spoon-feeding:

  • from the very first week of starting solids, let baby reach for her spoon or your hand holding it and pull it toward her mouth - you steer the spoon
  • you stabilize the end of the spoon as baby grasps the handle and begins to steer it to her mouth (click here to see a video)
  • you hold the end of the spoon as baby grasps and independently steers it to her mouth - you encourage and attempt to retrieve spoon before it's dropped to the floor 
  • you hold a bowl with a loaded spoon (food already on it) sticking out - baby grabs and brings to mouth

Try not to wrestle the spoon back from baby. If she wants to hold and tap it, bite it, or attempt to eat from an empty spoon try to allow this exploration and learning for a moment or two before asking to have the spoon back. 

Teach Baby To Use A Fork

Gasp! A fork??!!! You really would be surprised the level of self-feeding skills your kiddo is capable of if you only give them the chance! (click to see video)

Once your baby is showing control with a spoon - steering it accurately to her mouth - you can begin to offer a baby-safe fork loaded with food. Stabbing food with a fork won't likely emerge until over a year of age but early exposure to a fork and watching you stab food with it is a great first step. 

We use a  "vintage" silver fork that belonged to my husband when he was a baby (don't tell him I called it vintage!) but here are some Gerber forks that I've used and loved in my work as an OT {affiliate}. 

Teach Baby To Drink From An Open Cup

With a small cup with two handles or a tiny cup with no handles, you can help baby learn to drink. My biggest tip is to only put one sip of liquid in the cup. A see-through cup (like the Babycup) is also a big help.

  • you hold and tip the cup - baby holds cup with you as she shows interest (click to see video)
  • let baby play with an empty cup
  • baby independently brings cup with 1 sip (tiny tiny sip) to her mouth...and spills most of it at first, but with practice gets better


I Know What You're Thinking...

a pediatric OT and mommy shows you how to teach baby to feed himself. CanDo Kiddo

It's going to be messy! Yes, it will. Invest in a few good bibs or smocks and keep a damp washcloth at the table. Put a less-than-favorite shirt on baby or strip her down to her bottoms. Put a beach towel or old sheet under baby's chair or keep a broom and dustpan nearby. Acknowledge your own sensory sensitivities or resistance to messes but don't let them stand in the way of your baby's development.

It's going to take so much more time. Yes, it will. If some of your baby's mealtimes are rushed (in the morning, for example) aim to let baby self-feed at least 25% of a meal. Let baby do 50% or more if you've got time. If all of your baby's mealtimes are rushed, that's a red flag that you may need to look at your family's schedule and do some shifting.

For a complete list of the feeding tools I use and love, visit the CanDo Kiddo Resources Page