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Parenting --Children learning to feed themselves

Key points

  • Children learning to feed themselves are developing independence, fine motor skills and food awareness.

  • Start your child with finger foods, and then let them practise using a spoon.

  • Reduce mealtime mess with a bib or a dropsheet under the highchair.

Children feeding themselves: why it’s an important stage

When children are learning to feed themselves, it’s an important stage for many reasons.

First, children are learning to eat independently. This is a skill they need to develop for the later years of early childhood and for life.

Second, this stage involves a lot of feeling, squeezing and dropping food. It might seem messy, but it’s one of the ways your child develops fine motor skills like learning to hold a spoon.

Third, this is a chance to help your child learn more about the taste, texture, smell and temperature of food. For example, they’ll learn that it’s easier to pick up a piece of banana or kiwi fruit than a handful of yoghurt or soup.

What to expect when children are learning to feed themselves

Once you introduce solid food, your child might show signs of wanting to feed themselves. For example, your child might start reaching out for the spoon or trying to take food off your plate.

It’s natural for your child to want to feed themselves, and it’s great to encourage this – although it’s often messy and can sometimes be frustrating.

Be patient – your child will get there eventually. You might like to keep a camera handy to catch the funny side of this feeding stage.

Starting with finger foods

Finger foods are small, soft pieces of food that are easy for children to pick up and mash between their gums or teeth.

If your child is showing interest in feeding themselves, finger foods are a great way to start. You could try small, soft pieces of:

  • fruit like ripe banana, mango or kiwifruit

  • cooked vegetables like potato, sweet potato or pumpkin.

Top tip: put a few pieces of food within your child's reach. You can add more when your child finishes them or drops them. This way the food won’t all end up on the floor at the start.

To prevent choking, always supervise your child when they’re learning to feed themselves. Make sure your child is sitting up and not playing or crawling around. Some foods – for example, whole nuts and hard foods like chopped raw carrot – are choking hazards. Children who are learning to eat shouldn’t have these foods.

Learning to use a spoon or fork

Most babies won’t be able to use a spoon or fork until they’re about 18 months old. But it’s a good idea to let your child practise from a much earlier age. Usually babies will let you know when they want to start, by constantly reaching for the spoon or fork.

Here are ideas to encourage your child to use a spoon or fork:

  • Eat meals with your child. This way your child can watch how you use a spoon or fork to feed yourself.

  • Start with plastic spoons or forks with a comfortable grip – these can be softer for your child. As your child’s skills improve, they can move on to small, metal spoons or forks.

  • Feed your child with one spoon or fork while they hold another one.

  • First load food onto your child’s spoon or fork. Then give the spoon or fork to your child to put into their mouth on their own.

  • Let your child practise often to build their skills.

  • Give your child plenty of praise when they try using a spoon or fork.

From around 6 months, your child can start learning to drink from a cup. Like learning to eat, this process takes practice, and it can be slow and messy at first.

Managing mess and food play

Messy eating and playing with food are normal parts of your child's development when they’re learning to eat independently.

If you find the mess stressful, these ideas might help:

  • Put a bib on your child.

  • Cut food into strips or fingers so that it’s easier for your child to pick up and eat.

  • Let your child eat with their hands if they prefer.

  • Use a suction plate or bowl, which your child can’t pick up or throw.

  • Put a dropsheet under the highchair or table.

  • Set up your child’s highchair or table outside if you have a safe flat area.

It’s normal for your child to drop or throw food on the floor. If you react when your child does this, they might think it’s a game. One way to handle this is to ignore it. Calmly pick up the food without a fuss. Or you can leave the food on the floor until the meal is over. This way you can just do one clean-up at the end.

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