Now that your baby has been introduced to solids and is experiencing different foods and flavors, you may be ready to help your little one begin to self-feed. But when is the right time to encourage this new skill? What are the signs of readiness that we should look for? And what are the best foods to begin with when teaching baby to self-feed? We are answering all of your questions and sharing our tips on making this milestone easier for you and your child.
When will my baby be able to self-feed?
Usually, by about nine to 12 months of age, you may notice your baby showing an interest in self-feeding. They have become more experienced with eating solids at this age and are feeling the different textures of foods between their fingers. Hopefully, they are also making attempts at bringing some of that food to their mouth to lick and taste. This usually looks like them grasping for their food with their whole hand in a raking-like motion and then trying to shove what they have in their hand all into their mouth. You may even notice your baby trying to grab the food with their thumb and forefinger, which is an important fine motor skill called the pincer grasp. These are all good signs and are great indications that your baby is ready to begin self-feeding.
What are the signs that my baby is ready to self-feed?
There are a few readiness signs to look for that will indicate it’s the right time to begin teaching your baby to self-feed:
- Grabbing the spoon while you are holding it during mealtime.
- Reaching for their food on their plate, bowl, or tray.
- Reaching for your food or plate.
- Practicing the pincer grasp — bringing food and other items to their mouth during mealtime or playtime.
- Pushing your hand away when you try to feed them.
It’s important to pay attention to these readiness signs and not just rely on your child’s age. If a baby is 9 or 10 months old but does not show these readiness signs, parents should wait until they do. But once your baby does show these self-feeding readiness signs, it’s important to provide many opportunities for them to practice this skill. Allow them to try and try again. That’s how they will learn and master this skill!
What are the best foods to start with self-feeding?
The best foods to give your baby to practice self-feeding are easy for them to grab, hold, pick up, and bring to their mouth. Here are some recommendations to try:
- Stonyfield YoBaby Pouches
- Soft cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, or peas
- Small pieces of soft, ripe bananas, avocados, kiwi, or peaches
- Soft-cooked apples or pears
- Soft-cooked whole grain pasta
- Diced pieces of cooked chicken, turkey, or fish
- Cubes or strings of cheese
YoBaby® yogurt pouches are a great option for multiple reasons. First, they are easy for your little one to pick up and bring to their mouth. Second, they nourish little tummies with real fruit, live and active cultures, vitamin D, calcium, protein, and prebiotics! Third, the consistency is creamy and delicious — easy for baby to eat and swallow. And four, it combines whole milk yogurt and oats for a quick meal for baby!
All foods should be soft, easy to mash, and big enough for your baby to pick up but small enough to prevent them from choking.
What are the foods to avoid when my baby is beginning to self-feed?
Foods that should be avoided when beginning to teach your baby to self-feed are foods that pose a potential risk of choking.
- Raw carrots
- Whole grapes
- Hot dogs
- Portions of food that are too large
Your baby doesn’t have all of his teeth, so all foods should be soft. Once your baby’s 2-year molars come in, your child will be able to chew harder food properly. If you want to test to see which foods are safe and soft enough for your baby to eat, take a piece of their food and try to mash it between your fingers. If you cannot easily mash it, it’s probably too hard for your baby to chew.
How do I teach my baby to self-feed?
Now that you know your baby is ready to start self-feeding and you know which foods are best to start with, how do you begin? Here are some helpful tips.
1. Give your baby lots of opportunities to practice.
The more opportunities you give them to practice, the quicker they will learn and master self-feeding. Give them opportunities to try self-feeding with their hands and with utensils.
2. Begin with encouraging hand feeding.
Before introducing feeding utensils to your baby, encourage her first to use her hands to move the food toward her mouth. A good way to start is to place a yogurt pouch or a few pieces of food on your baby’s highchair tray. Encourage her to reach for it, feel it, and play with it with her pincer grasp. It may look as if she isn’t doing much and not eating, but that’s actually how she starts to learn.
3. Also, introduce and encourage baby to use utensils.
It’s never too early to introduce utensils to your baby! It’s good for them to get used to utensils during mealtime. In the beginning, I recommend having two spoons–one for you to help feed baby a few bites and one for them to hold and practice using. He may even try to imitate your motions by dipping his spoon into the food and maybe attempting to bring it to his mouth.
Another thing you can try is pre-loading his spoon with food and handing it to him. This can help him practice balancing the food on the spoon as he brings it to his mouth. With this, I recommend using thicker foods like yogurt and oatmeal. They are good practice foods since they stick more easily to the spoon. Overall, be sure to allow plenty of practice opportunities with both utensils.
4. Stay close to your baby during meals.
As your baby practices self-feeding, it’s important that you stay close and monitor her. We don’t want any food getting stuck in her nose or anywhere else, and you want to ensure that she is tolerating all of the new textures and flavors. By staying close, you will also monitor how much or little she is putting in her mouth and eating. These are all reasons why remaining by her side is necessary. She’s learning something new, and she needs your help and guidance!
5. Be prepared and expect a big mess.
When babies are allowed to touch and explore new foods and feeding themselves, things get messy. And that’s okay! Don’t stress about it, and expect the mess. Have your baby wear a baby apron, put a towel on the floor if you’re worried about food falling, or undress your baby down to her diaper! Also, have baby wipes and power towels close by. You may even have to give your baby a bath after mealtime. Again, this is normal. A messy meal is still a success because that means your baby was trying to self-feed. Soon enough, she’ll get better at handling the different foods and make less of a mess. This is all a part of the process.
6. Eat together as a family.
One of the best ways to teach your baby to self-feed is to have them watch the family eat. Babies are learning new things all the time, and they learn from modeled behaviors. By watching how their parents and siblings use their utensils and eat their food, babies want to mimic the same behaviors. They gain confidence watching you and believe that they can do it too! If you are feeding your baby at a different time than the rest of the family, they are missing out trying to mimic your movements with utensils and foods and observing other appropriate mealtime behaviors.
7. Be patient.
It takes time to learn how to self-feed, so be patient with your little one. Don’t try to rush the process or mealtimes. Your baby should set the pace because they understand their hunger and fullness cues. This is why it’s good to allow plenty of time for their meals. With lots of practice and patience, your baby will be self-feeding in no time!
What if my baby starts gagging or choking?
When teaching your baby to self-feed, expect some gagging to occur. Gagging is a natural occurrence and is the body’s natural defense against choking. This happens when babies have too much food in their mouth and are presented with new textures and flavors. As long as they aren’t gagging too much during mealtime or causing them distress, gagging is common. However, if they are frequently gagging when trying to self-feed, this can cause them to have negative associations with eating or eating aversions. If this happens, avoid giving those foods or preparing those negative associations at the next mealtime.
Choking, however, is different and much more serious than gagging. Choking is when a piece of food gets lodged in the airway. Your baby may first begin coughing, then become silent. He will show difficulty breathing and will not be able to cry or make sounds due to the food obstructing his airway. This is a serious and life-threatening matter. This is why the types of food, foods’ sizes, and the consistency of foods are important when teaching your baby to self-feed.
This is an exciting time in your baby’s development. Remember, self-feeding is a learning process and takes time. If you see that your baby isn’t able to self-feed enough foods to fill them up during mealtime, which is common in the beginning, alternate feeding them purees and finger foods to fill them. I also suggest offering them a YoBaby yogurt pouch to fill them and allow them to continue practicing self-feeding! In the meantime, take lots of pictures of this fun and messy milestone and enjoy the process!
Note that the views and opinions expressed in this post are solely that of Baby Chick and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Stonyfield. The content provided and in any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If you have any questions about health or nutrition, we always think it’s best to consult with your doctor or healthcare practitioner.