One of the most common questions I get asked is… “How can I teach my child to feed themselves?” I was pretty motivated to teach my own kids because that meant I could sit back and enjoy my own meal again… well, mostly. It is also a skill I have worked on, a lot, with kids of all ages and abilities. In this post, which is long over due, I am going to cover it all. I will tell you how to get your kid finger feeding, using a spoon, and a fork, all of which happen at different developmental periods. Plus, I’ll give you age guidelines, notice my word choice, when we are talking milestones. There is always a lot of variability as each child is unique. So, let’s get started…
Hopefully your child has started or will start feeding themselves those little melt-able puffs right off their tray around 8 months. Initially, you will notice that they grasp for their food with their whole hand in a raking motion. They often get a bunch in their at once and will try to shove their whole hand into their mouth. This is a fairly ineffective method, but they manage. Slowly, they will begin to use multiple fingers to pick up more foods, which should evolve into a pincer grasp (see the top pic above or the one below) around 9 months old (but it could range from 7-11 months). This pincer grasp is important because is lays the foundation for future fine motor skills like writing.
How You Can Help Them!
First of all, make sure you are giving them opportunity. Let them try and try again, it is okay to let them struggle a little. That is how they learn! Give them things like puffs that are dry and big enough to pick up, but not so big they could choke. Most kids are motivated to eat and will figure out how to get it into their mouth. The problem sometimes arises with the pincer grasp. If they aren’t isolating their finger and thumb, set aside some time at the beginning of their meal to give them one piece of food at a time. Try placing one singular puff on their tray first, without a boat load of puffs they may isolate those fingers for you. If they don’t use the pincer grasp, hold it up in front of them, like my husband is demonstrating in picture to the right. Don’t let go until you see them grabbing it with their index finger and thumb. Spend just a few minutes “practicing” at the beginning of the meal and then let them finish their meal normally so they don’t get too frustrated. Likely, it won’t be long before they have mastered this new skill!
We look for toddlers to be feeding themselves with a spoon, completely independently by the age of 2. However, most kids are capable of learning much younger than that if they are given the opportunity . By one year of age they can be proficiently and messily feeding themselves. If you struggle with the messiness of self feeding make sure you read one of my most popular posts, Why You Should Let Your Kid Get Messy Eating.
How You Can Help Them!
As with spoon feeding, the most important thing you can do initially is to let your baby or now toddler try. In the very early days of feeding your baby, this means giving them their own spoon while you feed them. This allows baby to associate the spoon with eating and they get to work on their fine motor skills a little too. Hopefully, your child will put it to their mouth intermittently, encourage this. Once they start to put it to their mouth put your hand on top of their’s and dip it together in the food, put just enough on the spoon so it is just a taste. Do this a few times throughout the meal until they start to get the hang of it themselves.
You will continue in this way with 2 bowls until you are giving them more and more of the actual food and less bites from your spoon. When they are feeding themselves most of the meal you can stop using your own bowl. In a short time you will only be occasionally helping them with a large bite or when they turn the spoon the wrong way.
Although it will continue be a supervised process for some time. Also, they will be fairly messy eaters for a while, don’t worry about the food that falls on their bib and chin. I hope I’m not the barer of bad news, but they will eat like this until about 2 – 2 and 1/2. On the upside their independence gives you a chance to actually eat your own food or answer the phone or wash up a few dishes!
It is also helpful to keep in mind that thicker foods like yogurt and pudding will be easier to scoop and keep on the spoon. Thinner textures may be frustrating initially.
If your child is already a toddler and you missed the steps I just described, it is okay, you are still going to proceed in much the same way. You will likely be moving through those early steps more quickly. Many parents don’t think to give their child a spoon so young or are really overwhelmed by the mess that it causes. With a toddler it is important to follow their lead and give them as much help as they need, although it is okay to let them struggle a little here, too. Consistency in how often you are presenting them with a spoon and patience go a long way!
If your child is struggling to get the hang of it or is refusing to try, make sure it is not the mess that is bothering them. If you suspect that they don’t like being messy show them that you have a napkin nearby and give them their own. If they do get a little messy and it upsets them, be quick to clean it up.
Regardless of the reason they are having difficulty: consistency, patience, and practicing together are the keys to progress.
Introduce fork feeding after they mastered using the spoon and have a nice pincer grasp for self feeding. Again, we look for kids to be capable of using a fork by age 2, although most will prefer to use their fingers, which is fine. Kids are capable of using a fork around 15-18 months.
How You Can Help Them!
Begin by placing a safe toddler fork on their plate or high chair tray with something really easy to pierce like cubes of cheese or a chicken nugget. Noodles and fruit are soft, but slippery, and may fall apart. In the beginning, we want to keep their frustration level down and give them a real chance at being successful. That will motivate them to try again and again. If they are having trouble with getting the food onto the fork, provide that hand over hand help again until they get the hang of it. Give them as little help as possible as you move along.
Continue to offer them a fork and at a minimum encourage them to use it a few times a week until they are in the preschool years and it becomes more inappropriate to eat everything with their fingers.