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

Baby mealtime tips from a pediatric OT. CanDoKiddo.com

It's easy to get so focused on what foods you give your baby and overlook the importance of how your baby eats. That is, of course, until problems arise. Just listen to some of the recent parent concerns from my consulting clients.

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 15 month old the spoon but he still 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 toddler doesn't know how to use a fork because we haven't let him use one. 

Why Are Self-feeding Skills Important?

One of the three principles of my Fast Track To Solids approach is encouraging self-feeding skills at every meal right from the start. Here's why it's so important:

Baby Learns To Grasp

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

Finger-feeding is one of the only safe early opportunities your little one will have to practice his finger coordination with very small objects.

I disagree that a pincer grasp should be a prerequisite for eating Puffs and other dissolvable solids. It is most often through the process of finger feeding that the pincer grasp emerges. 

Baby Gains 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 child development nerds like me call them. 

Because feeding is so motivating for most kiddos, they tend to work hard and persist in the face of challenging motor tasks.

Baby Refines 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 experiences help babies develop sensory thresholds - learning what inputs feel SAFE and COMFORTABLE (and what feels like TOO MUCH or TOO LITTLE input). 

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.

Babies Gain Independence

As I discuss in my online feeding course for parents, independence is an important aspect of early childhood. By allowing your baby to be an active participant in mealtimes, you help avoid or minimize 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...if you've been the keeper of the spoon, this is often a simple 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!

Babies Learn To Use Their Mouths

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 and a straw 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 or for a few months. But I do want parents to realize that there are better alternatives to sippy cups and it's important for babies to learn to drink from open cups and straws, too.

How Do I Teach My Baby To Feed Himself?

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 - the way you or I would pinch a key to turn it. 

Teach Baby To Use A Spoon

Teaching baby to use a spoon can begin at his very first meals. In my online feeding course for parents, Food Before One, I share how to introduce specific spoon skills to your baby and how to minimize the messes of baby-led spoon feeding!

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. 

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. 


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.

Stop the endless internet searches and crowdsourcing questions.
Get clear, expert advice from a baby feeding professional about the best foods, techniques, gear and safety tips for happy, relaxed mealtimes with your little one.

Just listen to how excited, confident and successful first-time mom Molly was on her FIRST DAY of feeding her baby:

"We started solids today and are following your Food Before One course. Today when I handed her a pre-loaded spoon with butternut squash, she went to town! So exciting!"