Encouraging your baby to self feed

When should a baby learn to feed herself? When should she be using a spoon? When should she be completely self feeding?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

When it comes to self feeding, the mind and the capabilities of the baby don't always progress in sync. Often a baby is determined to feed herself, but doesn't yet have the ability to grasp food or spoon, and she ends the meal messy and frustrated. Other times, babies are content with the ease of being fed, and despite being able to feed themselves, continue to push mom to do the job. In the former case, you need to provide the opportunities to make her efforts successful, and in the later case, you have to do a little persistent pushing.

Let's talk about the first case. If you have a baby that insists on feeding herself, even though she can't get the job done, there are a few things you can do. In order for a baby to successfully self-feed, they need to have a pretty well developed pincer grasp. This allows them to pick up food and dexterously get it to their mouth. Prior to the pincer grasp is the palmer grasp. At this stage, babies can only pick up things in the palm of their hands.

What it amounts to is taking fistfuls of food and aiming it somewhere near their mouth, and mashing it in -- often scraping the palm with their lips to get it all. What a mess! This sort of grasp precludes efficient self-spoon feeding.

At this early stage you can help out by doing a number of things. First, for finger foods, offer those things that she can hold in his palm, like long crackers, or strips of toast, where there is still food sticking out the end for her to bite off of. Second, give your baby one spoon while you feed with the other. For her spoon, use sticky food and load the spoon for her to self feed. Food like thick baby cereal, or mashed fruits and vegetables that have been mixed into mashed potatoes. Any thick, gooey mess that can adhere to the spoon or be picked up, but still is easily "gummed" in her mouth without causing her to gag, is a good food at this time.

During this time, while she is learning to feed herself, and waiting for her pincer grasp to emerge, a lot of her nutrition will come from breastmilk or formula and the baby foods that you are feeding her. It is wise to start backing off on the less chunky forms of baby food, since they do not encourage her to use her more mature ability to chew and swallow like an adult. And for that ability to develop, she needs to practice it.

Once you notice that she is more adept at pincer grasp, you can let him pick up more and more of his own feeding. (All fluids at meal time should be offered in a sippy cup, not in a bottle). A self motivated baby will make the switch to self feeding by himself, often before he is capable of getting enough food that way. By the time a baby is between 10 and 14 months, they will be independent eaters.

For the baby who is quite satisfied with being fed baby food, and drinking from a bottle, you will need to be a little pushy. Begin slowly so as to not shock or confuse your baby. Begin at breakfast when baby is well rested and up for a new challenge. Eliminate the bottle from this meal first and encourage her to feed himself her own cereal, and offering some toast. Load her spoon and help her get it to his mouth. Don't be too ready to offer your spoonful. Let her be for a few minutes so she can experiment with the food and feeding. Back off on your participation.

Gradually eliminate the finally pureed baby foods as they may hinder her moving on to more appropriately textured foods. ( Of course there are always those foods that will remain forever in her diet that are pureed or mashed, like applesauce or winter squash. You don't need to eliminate all soft foods, but you do need to encourage the addition of chunkier, and thicker ones.) A baby who fits into this category will be a little longer in making the move to complete self-feeding.

For most babies, expertise in using a spoon will take years to develop (Have you ever watched a seven year old eat?). Provide baby with those great utensils available at baby stores, the kind that she can hold easily and that have the curve that helps get the food to the target. It will make her hard efforts more rewarding.

As with almost every phase of child development, each child has their own, unique schedule. What is important is to be cued into your child, being aware of when he is ready to move on, when she needs some encouragement, and when you need to back off. Your 'listening' skills are important for this. Notice how she chews and swallows, how she holds his finger foods, etc. From those cues, you can determine when she needs your help, and when she needs to do it herself, when she is ready for chunkier foods, or if a thinner texture is needed a while longer. Don't hold hard and fast to any specific age that he needs to be accomplished at something. So long as your see progress in the right direction, then relax and know that you are doing the best you can.

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