When Do Toddlers Start Self-Feeding?

If your little one is getting ready to take a bite out of his babyhood by starting to feed himself, here's some food for thought about what to expect with this exciting milestone.
toddler snacking on cheerios

Kaysh Shinn

Your child is growing up and is continuing to hunger for a taste of independence. Each milestone a toddler meets is a move from stationary baby to a functioning little person. "A child being able to feed himself is an important aspect to his personal and social development," says Jaeah Chung, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Stony Brook Children's Hospital in Stony Brook, New York. "It helps him gain independence and build up a sense of autonomy." Another perk: "When a child is in control of feeding, he responds to natural cues for hunger and fullness," says Tiffani Hays, director of pediatric nutrition at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. This is a huge help for parents, who can be anxious trying to figure out if the child has eaten enough. Plus, when a child gets the proper vitamins and essential nutrients, she will continue on the trajectory of growing and developing.

Type of Development: Fine Motor Skills

When your child starts to feed himself, he is tapping into his fine motor skills. It can be a real giggle session watching your small fry learn to maneuver his way around a dinner plate, but every time he smashes bananas all over his face or spoons his favorite nibbles into his mouth, he's actually cementing muscle strength and coordination into his memory. These skills will continue to improve far into childhood and help him with a lifetime of daily functions. Down the road, strong fine motor skills will help him write legibly, type on a computer keyboard, turn pages in a book, and brush his hair and teeth.

When to Expect Self-Feeding to Begin

It can be exciting to have your sprout saddle up to the dinner table with you (now seating table for three!), but your child is not ready to feed herself until she can sit up comfortably and confidently on her own. At around 8 to 12 months, your child will begin to use her thumb and index fingers to feed herself, Dr. Chung says. So, believe it or not, it's acceptable for her to start playing with her food using her fingers. Between 13 to 15 months, she will start using a spoon, and by 18 months, she will start using her utensils much more consistently.

What Self-Feeding Milestones Parents Should Expect

If your little guy starts reaching for your veggies and you notice his eyes focused on your food and your utensil movements, he's mentally prepping to start feeding himself. And whenever he does start noshing on his own, prepare for -- and expect -- a mess! Your budding foodie will drop, spill, and smear food just about everywhere, so save the Emily Post dinner table etiquette for much later. "Most children won't be able to feed themselves without spilling until 18 to 24 months of age," Dr. Chung says. "And many children remain messy eaters into their third year."

So when it comes to preparing the menu, start out with something small and soft, such as pasta, cooked vegetables, mashed potatoes, and scrambled eggs. Gradually, as your tot's grip and grasp strengthen, you can give him a spoon and let him practice with thicker foods like pudding, yogurt, and mashed potatoes. Stay away from foods such as grapes, peanuts, and popcorn, which could cause a choking hazard. While your tot is strengthening his supper skills, mealtime can seem to last forever, so dish out a helping of patience. Try to let him do it by himself, even if it seems like there are more peas on the floor than in his mouth -- it's important for your child to master feeding skills on his own. To prevent him from getting frustrated and giving up, make sure it hasn't been too long since his last feeding, so he's not overly hungry or tired, Hays says.

Red Flags to Watch Out For

Your toddler may be at a risk for poor coordination of oral structures or delayed motor skills if he is:

- unable to eat food without gagging or choking
- has trouble moving food around in his mouth
- has difficulty chewing or swallowing

Watch out for any food intolerance or allergy, which can lead to a lack of interest in eating and feeding. Rashes, hives, and wheezing are obvious signs that a food allergy may be to blame, but also look for subtler signs, such as a runny nose, circles under the eyes, swollen lips, and waking up with a stuffy nose. If no one else in the house has a cold and the symptoms seemed to start after you introduced a certain food, your child may be having trouble with a particular item in his diet. If you notice any of these issues, discuss them with your pediatrician.

Food Allergies: Helping Your Child Cope
Food Allergies: Helping Your Child Cope

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

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