One of the most common questions I get asked is… “How can I teach my child to feed themselves?” Self-feeding is a big deal for tired parents! I was pretty motivated to teach my own kids because that meant I could sit back and enjoy my own meal again… well, mostly. It is also a skill I have worked on, A LOT, with kids of all ages and abilities as an occupational therapist.
How to Teach Self-Feeding
I’m going to cover it all for you here in this complete self-feeding guide. I will tell you how to teach your baby or toddler to:
- finger feed
- eat with a spoon
- eat with a fork
Each of these are actually their own independent skill, and they are typically achieved at different ages. I’ll give you age guidelines to look for as your child works towards mastering feeding themselves first, and then, my OT/Mom strategies for how to help them learn. Of course, I will share with you the best utensils for babies and toddlers learning to self feed, too! So, let’s get started…
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How to Teach Your Child to Use their Fingers to Self-Feed
When do Babies Feed Themselves?
Hopefully your child has started or will start feeding themselves those little melt-able puffs right off their tray around 8 months. Initially, you will notice that they grasp for their food with their whole hand in a raking motion. They often get a bunch in their hand at once and will try to shove their whole hand into their mouth.
This is a fairly ineffective method, but they manage. Slowly, they will begin to use multiple fingers to pick up more foods, which should evolve into a pincer grasp (see the top pic above or the one below) around 9 months old (but it could range from 7-11 months). This pincer grasp is important because is lays the foundation for future fine motor skills like writing.
How You Teach Them!
First of all, make sure you are giving them opportunity. Let them try and try again, it’s okay to let them struggle a little. That is how they learn! Give them things like puffs that are dry and big enough to pick up, but not so big they could choke. (I also like to use these cheese curls or pea crisps designed for babies broken into small pieces). Most kids are motivated to eat and will figure out how to get it into their mouth.
The problem sometimes arises with the pincer grasp.
If they aren’t isolating their finger and thumb, set aside some time at the beginning of their meal to give them one piece of food at a time. Try placing one singular puff on their tray first, without a boat load of puffs, they may isolate those fingers for you. If they don’t use the pincer grasp, hold it up in front of them, like my husband is demonstrating in picture above.
Don’t let go until you see them grabbing it with their index finger and thumb. Spend just a few minutes “practicing” at the beginning of the meal and then let them finish their meal normally so they don’t get too frustrated. Likely, it won’t be long before they have mastered this new skill!
One of my favorite tools for dicing up food into small pieces is the FunBites cutter, a handy little tool that cuts bite sized pieces into fun shapes. The hard edges this cutter creates will be a good start for picking up foods that are a little softer. For babies, some shapes may need to be cut in half again.
Teaching Your Toddler (or Baby) to Self-Feed with a Spoon
When will your toddler eat with a spoon?
We look for toddlers to be feeding themselves with a spoon, completely independently by the age of 2. However, most kids are capable of learning much younger than that if they are given the opportunity. By one year of age, they can be proficiently and messily feeding themselves. If you struggle with the messiness of self feeding, make sure you read one of my most popular posts, Why You Should Let Your Kid Get Messy Eating.
How You Can Teach Them!
As with spoon feeding, the most important thing you can do initially is to let your baby or now toddler try. In the very early days of feeding your baby, this means giving them their own spoon while you feed them. This allows baby to associate the spoon with eating and they get to work on their fine motor skills a little too. Hopefully, your child will put it to their mouth intermittently, encourage this. Once they start to put it to their mouth, put your hand on top of theirs and dip it together in the food, put just enough on the spoon so it is just a taste. Do this a few times throughout the meal until they start to get the hang of it themselves.
Once they have this under their belt, it is time to give them their own little bowl while you are feeding them. I can already feel the panic setting in for so many of you – What, their own bowl?!? A bowl they can throw and stick their hands in? Yes, that is what I am suggesting!
The suction bowls are awesome and will help keep them from tossing the whole bowl on to the floor. The trick is to only give them a little food in the bowl at a time. At this point, you are still feeding them most of the meal. If they are doing well scooping up food and at least getting some of it into their mouth, put more and more food into the bowl for them to feed themselves.
If they aren’t showing much interest or are having a hard time manipulating the spoon, then help them by putting your hand on top of theirs and moving through all the steps of scooping and putting the bite into their mouth (see the pic above). Once you reach this point, your child is probably around 8- 9 months old, assuming you started feeding them baby food at 6 months. If the mess is becoming too distracting, which it likely will, gently remind them that food goes in their mouth. Try to remember that the mess and playing with food is all part of the process. I know it is challenging, but it is short lived.
Another frustration that often pops up is throwing their bowl or food. Check out How to Stop Babies from Throwing Food for more tips.
You will continue in this way with 2 bowls until you are giving them more and more of the actual food and less bites from your spoon. When they are feeding themselves most of the meal, you can stop using your own bowl. In a short time, you will only be occasionally helping them with a large bite or when they turn the spoon the wrong way.
Although, it will continue be a supervised process for some time. Also, they will be fairly messy eaters for a while, don’t worry about the food that falls on their bib and chin. I hope I’m not the barer of bad news, but they will eat like this until about 2 – 2 and 1/2. On the upside, their independence gives you a chance to actually eat your own food or answer the phone or wash up a few dishes!
It is also helpful to keep in mind that thicker foods like yogurt and pudding will be easier to scoop and keep on the spoon. Thinner textures may be frustrating initially.
See my top picks for spoons at the end of the post!
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Teaching Your Toddler to Self Feed with a Fork
When will your toddler feed them self with a fork?
Introduce fork feeding after they mastered using the spoon and have a nice pincer grasp for self feeding. Again, we look for kids to be capable of using a fork by age 2, although most will prefer to use their fingers, which is fine. Kids are capable of using a fork around 15-18 months.
How You Can Teach Them!
Begin by placing a safe toddler fork on their plate or high chair tray with something really easy to pierce like cubes of cheese or a chicken nugget. Noodles and fruit are soft, but slippery, and may fall apart. In the beginning, we want to keep their frustration level down, and give them a real chance at being successful. That will motivate them to try again and again. If they are having trouble with getting the food onto the fork, provide that hand over hand help again until they get the hang of it. Give them as little help as possible as you move along.
Continue to offer them a fork and at a minimum, encourage them to use it a few times a week until they are in the preschool years and it becomes more inappropriate to eat everything with their fingers.
The Best Utensils for Toddlers Learning to Self Feed
My FAVORITE Spoons
Both of my boys used these spoons and the spork variety they sell as well. I love them because of their wide curved handle, plus the shape allows them to dip only a little and still get a spoonful. That is important in the early days, when their coordination isn’t so hot. I also love the deep bowl of the actual spoon because even when some of the food falls off, it all isn’t lost, which can be really frustrating to these guys when their trying so hard.
My FAVORITE Forks
I love these little forks because they too have a soft, wide gripped handle. The best part is that they are metal and will actually pierce something. But the prongs are rounded just enough so that they aren’t dangerous for little ones.
How to Encourage a Toddler to Self-Feed
If your child is already a toddler and you missed the steps I just described, it is okay, you are still going to proceed in much the same way. You will likely be moving through those early steps more quickly. Many parents don’t think to give their child a spoon so young or are really overwhelmed by the mess that it causes. With a toddler, it is important to follow their lead and give them as much help as they need, although it is okay to let them struggle a little here, too. Consistency in how often you are presenting them with a spoon and patience go a long way!
I also have to point out here, that sometimes, toddlers know how to feed themselves, or at least are capable of doing so, but may refuse because they are extremely picky eaters. Read When has Picky Eating Gone Too Far if you think this may be the reason behind your child’s refusal to self feed.
If your child is struggling to get the hang of it or is refusing to try, make sure it is not the mess that is bothering them. If you suspect that they don’t like being messy, show them that you have a napkin nearby and give them their own. If they do get a little messy and it upsets them, be quick to clean it up. Check out how to help kids with sensory sensitivities.
Regardless of the reason they are having difficulty: consistency, patience, and practicing together are the keys to progress.
If you need more ideas for foods and recipes, check out meal ideas for babies and toddlers.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.