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Understanding a Child's Eating Habits

Teaching a Child Self-Feeding

The ability to place objects into his mouth is the first sign that your baby is getting ready to feed himself.
The ability to place objects into his mouth is the first sign that your baby is getting ready to feed himself.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Your baby may be ready to help feed herself when she sits with stability in her high chair, can put objects into her mouth, has begun some chewing motions, and perhaps holds breast or bottle in her hands while feeding. You both benefit from her attempts to feed independently. Though the process may be much slower and is definitely messier than when you feed her, the advantages of letting her try are many.

She feels good making her fingers, body, and mouth cooperate as she attempts to satisfy her hunger. Feeding herself stimulates all her senses and provides a wonderful learning experience. She tastes and smells the food. She feels the texture and temperature on her fingers as she reaches, chews, and swallows her food. She enjoys the click the spoon makes on her dish. And she likes the bright colors of many of her food choices.


The Transitional Period

At six months, your baby can put objects into her mouth. She explores her world through her mouth, which makes this time perfect to begin some finger foods. She can also sit with little support. By seven months, she may have some teeth and may begin to make chewing motions with her mouth. She can hold a small bottle by herself and may begin to take liquids from a cup with help.

While she cannot be expected to feed herself all her foods at this stage, she can participate by feeding herself some foods. She can also have finger foods for snacks.

Finger foods appropriate for your child during this transitional period include those that dissolve easily in the mouth, such as the following:

  • Small pieces of toast
  • Small pieces of cooked vegetables, such as peas, squash, soft carrots, or broccoli
  • Self-feeding is a major step for your baby.
  • Small pieces of very soft meat, such as fish without bones, chicken without skin or bones, or hamburger
  • Small pieces of ripe peaches, bananas, pears, or other soft fruit
  • Small pieces of soft cheese, such as Monterey Jack or Colby (unless there is evidence of a milk intolerance or allergy)
  • Cheerios or puffed rice

Avoid foods that may cause choking. Do not offer the following during the first year:

  • Any dried fruits, such as apricots, raisins, dates, pineapple, or coconut
  • Any nuts, such as walnuts or peanuts
  • Popcorn, potato chips, corn chips, or crackers that do not dissolve well
  • Hard candy of any kind
  • Uncooked vegetables, such as carrots or celery
  • Hot dogs and other foods that might be of windpipe size

Bath time is an excellent time to teach your baby to drink from a cup. She will enjoy the challenge, and you will not need to contend with a mess on the floor or her clothes. Use a plastic shot glass or plastic nipple cover as the first cup; the smaller diameter of the opening makes it easier for her to manage with her small mouth. You can offer breast milk, formula, or juice from a cup.

If you bottle-feed, your baby may enjoy helping you hold her bottle. Let her participate by pulling the nipple in and out of her mouth and adjusting the angle of the bottle. Avoid putting her to bed with her bottle, though; as she falls asleep, less saliva bathes her teeth, and she swallows less often. Some milk may pool in her mouth and support the growth of bacteria, which leads to tooth decay. She could even choke.

Modified Adult Period

By the time your baby is eight months old, she can sit without support and reach for a cup and spoon. She may be able to lift a cup by herself. When she is full, she lets you know by turning away from her food or playing with it.

Since she cannot feed herself well yet from a spoon, you can help her by teaching her how to grasp it in her hand and move her hand toward her dish. A good way to begin is to let her hold a spoon while you feed her with another spoon. Every several bites, help her load her spoon and bring it to her mouth. Use foods that stick well to the spoon, such as cereal, mashed potatoes, or thick mashed banana. Lots of praise and acceptance of spills encourage her to learn.

Use a small cup at mealtimes with a small amount of milk or water (to save you work if the contents spill). Or use a cup with a no-spill lid. She will probably need help at first just learning to hold on to the cup without spilling and, of course, she needs your approval.

By nine months, she can chew easily and can bite off a chunk of food from a larger piece. Her pincer grasp (ability to pick up objects with thumb and forefinger) is well developed. Foods appropriate at this age include strips of soft cheese or toast, strips of bread with cheese melted on top, peeled cucumber cut into small pieces, cooked green beans and broccoli spears, wedges of fresh pears or peaches, or slices of banana. She will do well with peas and blueberries, too. She still needs lots of chances to use a spoon and cup.

By ten months, your baby may do well with a cup and may enjoy feeding herself much of her meal. By 11 months, she is able to drink several swallows from her cup at a time. She enjoys squashing foods in her fingers, appreciating the feel and texture. By 12 months, she may be quite proficient with her utensils and may prefer to feed herself most of her meal.

Vegetables stalks are a good, nutritious food that is easy for your child to handle.
Vegetables stalks are a good, nutritious food that is easy for your child to handle.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

At this age she may also enjoy the new skill of deliberately spitting. These last few months of the baby's first year offer parents special challenges in feeding. Creativity in planning nutritious meals your baby can feed herself helps your baby to become independent at the table. Make it easy on yourself by giving your baby no more food than she can quickly and easily eat or drink.

She can always have more put on her plate or in her cup if she finishes. Putting small amounts of food and beverage within reach of your baby helps reduce some of the messiness of this stage. Tipping over bowls and cups and watching your reaction are great fun, and spitting is sure to grab your attention. Remember: Sometimes ignoring a behavior you do not like ends the behavior more quickly than expressing surprise or displeasure.

The Toddler Period

Your toddler can manage cup and spoon with ease. She can chew well and take foods she has difficulty chewing out of her mouth with her fingers. She may be a messy eater who may express some strong food preferences. She also has a diminished appetite at this stage, corresponding with her slower rate of growth.

Mealtimes call for creativity and patience on your part. Your toddler needs foods she can easily eat by herself. Since her appetite is not large, take advantage of snack times as well as mealtimes to provide her with nutritious foods.

Try offering vegetable strips as snacks. To make zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower more interesting, try a yogurt dip with dill seasoning. Fortify milk shakes with wheat germ and fruit. You might also try adding a small amount of grated carrot, apple, or zucchini to pancakes.

Always offer nutritious foods. Then you can relax and avoid the food battles that result from forcing foods on a resistant toddler.

Once your child is able to feed himself you will lose a lot of control of what your child eats. The best way to feel confident about what your child is eating is to make sure they know how to make good food choices. We'll learn how to instill good eating habits in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.