For most typically-developing infants, pediatricians will advise that parents begin introducing spoon-fed baby foods to their babies at around the age of 6 months. Generally, we start with a thin mixture of rice cereal, and as babies demonstrate that they can handle this gentle food, we gradually add foods one at a time to ensure that there are no allergies.
So many of us look forward to this stage of development for a variety of reasons. It’s exciting and different – finally we get to give baby a taste of something new! Many of us – I was one of these parents – are hoping that the addition of solid foods will be the magic bullet that makes our babies sleep through the night! And, it’s fun to see how baby will react. Often, they are not nearly as thrilled as we parents are at first. In fact, those first few weeks of feeding solids can be a little bit disappointing, with unexpected gagging, unhappy expressions, and lots of bites spit right back out at the loving face that’s offering them. Happily though, for most children, this initial adjustment period goes by and before you know it you and your baby will be enjoying meals in the high chair several times a day.
As your baby perfects the oral skills of accepting the spoon on her tongue, clearing food from it with her lip, and pushing it backwards to swallow, she’ll start to relax and will probably try to take matters into her own hands and attempt to feed herself. This is a wonderful (and very messy) development! We have come up with some tips and strategies to help you to help your baby learn to feed themselves. If at any point in this process you feel like things are harder than they should be, or meals are not becoming any less stressful over time, call your doctor right away to see what might be going on and if an Early Intervention professional could help along the way.
Make Sure Your Baby is Properly Seated
Since all of this is going to be new to your child, it will be difficult and a little stressful. The last thing we want to do when we are asking a baby to learn a new skill is to add any unnecessary challenges. So, by ensuring that your baby does not have to be working hard to keep his head up and find support for his body, he can better focus on the task at hand – accepting the spoon and successfully swallowing that bite. Luckily there are a great variety of affordable and adjustable high chairs and feeding chairs available. Depending on your baby’s ability to sit without support, a high chair that allows for a slightly reclined position may be very helpful.
Look at your baby when he is seated, and make sure he is not leaning over to one side or the other. You can use rolled towels to provide support around his body if necessary. Remember that you are aiming for a nice, upright, head-in-the-middle, relaxed and happy position. If your baby looks uncomfortable and stressed before you even start feeding her, an adjustment is probably in order.
Pick the Right Spoon
We will leave it to the doctors to guide you as to what foods to introduce when. Whatever you offer, keep in mind the size of your baby’s mouth. It’s tiny, so for these first feedings it’s best to use a small spoon. They have to figure out a lot of new things to make this work, so it’s important to not further complicate it with a spoon that’s too big to allow them to move their tongues around it and push it out if they need to.
Embrace the Mess
Don’t be discouraged if your baby seems to hate this whole process. She may gag, spit, and make terrible faces. Try to stay calm (or at least LOOK calm) and keep in mind that this is a totally new thing baby is learning to do. Even when she gets the hang of it and starts to enjoy it, it is going to be messy. Try to ignore the urge to constantly wipe your baby’s face or express frustration at the mess. Your baby will be looking at you to get a sense of how well she’s doing.
When He Reaches for The Spoon, Hand it Over!
This is often the hardest part for many parents, but it is such an important development along the way to independent self-feeding. Generally, babies reach for that spoon before they are ready to really take over their own feedings. It’s helpful to come to the meal prepared with lots of spoons, one for you and at least one for each of baby’s hands. Encourage and praise your baby’s attempts to dip his spoon in the bowl and bring it to his mouth, and sneak in real bites from your spoon as much as you can.
Don’t Break The Bank
Speaking of spoons, there’s no perfect fork or spoon and certainly no need to spend a fortune on name-brand equipment. Generally speaking, the one that your child is able to hold in his fist and get to his mouth without poking in his nose or eye should work just fine.
Offer Foods That Will Lead to Success
As your baby gets older and is better able to get the spoon to her mouth, think about offering foods that will make it easier for her to get her bite into her mouth before it drips off the spoon. One way to do this is to place a bowl of a thicker food (e.g. oatmeal, Thick & Creamy yogurt) on the tray of baby’s high chair for her to self-feed, while you provide the bites of the thinner foods (pureed fruits and vegetables) she also needs but will have more difficult time managing on her own.
Eat With Your Hands!
Your baby is going to be much more likely to want to pick up small pieces of table foods to eat with her hands than to work hard to stab food on the fork herself. That said, offer a compromise by placing a toddler fork with a bite already stabbed on it alongside pieces of food for her to finger feed. This will help your baby eat quickly enough so that she doesn’t get frustrated with hunger, while also allowing her to practice aiming the fork into her mouth. As her hunger eases up, guide her hand to stab pieces of food herself.
Let Him Feed You
It may sound crazy to allow an infant or toddler to aim a food-filled utensil at your face, but being able to share bites with their caregivers is so much fun for babies and it offers them a chance to really improve their skills.
Slow Her Down
Once your baby has gotten pretty skilled with feeding herself, using utensils or fingers, you may notice that she now wants to overstuff her mouth. The best advice we can offer is to always play it safe – always supervise your child’s meals, and only provide enough bites that she can safely handle in her mouth at one time. You can also help pace your baby’s meal by alternating the foods you offer. For example, a bite of food that needs to be chewed may be followed by an easy-to-swallow puree or a drink from her cup to help make sure her mouth is clear and ready for the next bite of chewable food.
The development of self-feeding skills is definitely not something that happens overnight. But with some patience, a sense of humor, and plenty of paper towels, your baby will be feeding himself before you know it.