5 Ways to Encourage Independent Eating in Babies

Learning to self-feed at mealtime is big milestone for your little one—and for you! Follow these guidelines to learn how to raise a healthy, independent eater.

Baby boy eating green peas
Photo: Alija/Getty Images

Encouraging babies and toddlers to feed themselves has benefits that go far beyond vitamins and essential nutrients. When children feed themselves, they develop fine motor skills through touching, grasping, spooning, squeezing—and, of course, dropping—food. Self-feeding offers developing eaters sensory skill development, too, as they explore food's taste, texture, smell, color, and temperature. Plus when a child is in control of his food intake, he learns to tune in to natural hunger cues and to stop eating when he's full—an important life skill.

Once your baby can sit up steadily by herself and has started to practice her pincer grasp, it's time to bring on the finger foods. As you move into toddlerhood, the "I do it myself stage", you can capitalize on that independent streak and encourage even more self-feeding, with, say, actual utensils and perhaps even—gasp!—a napkin. But don't panic if your toddler still prefers to have you feed her; every child develops differently. Just remember to provide plenty of opportunities to practice independent eating. And use these simple tips, tricks, and ideas to help you and your little one get on your way:

1. Set the stage. Have food and all of the necessary gear ready before you bring your child to the table. This avoids a multitude of disasters, including having a hangry kiddo screaming for food. Ideally, your setup will include:

  • a high chair or booster seat that you can pull right up to the table
  • child-size spoon and fork with big, built-up handles that are easy to grip (once your little one is ready, usually around a year)
  • plates and bowls with raised sides, which make food less likely to spill
  • nonslip placemats or trays help keep everything in place

2. Set regular mealtimes. Children like predictability, so set up a daily mealtime schedule that suits your family's routine. Three meals plus a morning and afternoon snack at roughly the same time each day is a good target to shoot for. Aim to space snacks out so that you aren't feeding your kid too close to mealtime: 2-3 hours between a snack and a meal usually ensures that your baby will be hungry enough at mealtime to really want to eat. A reasonably hungry kid is a motivated self-feeder!

3. Serve the right stuff. Babies can usually start to self-feed around 9 months, but it's important to offer appropriate fare:

  • Soft, safe foods—such as cooked squash, banana chunks, low-sugar puffed cereal, and soft cheese cubes—are ideal, since your baby's still learning to chew
  • Try not to serve more food than your little one can manage; start with a small portion, then let your child ask for more if she's still hungry
  • Squeeze pouches, like Gerber's with the Smart Flow spout, are a great way to introduce independence into the mealtime equation. They offer just the right combination of nutrition and confidence-building control to keep the self-feeding train moving along
  • To increase variety in your child's diet, introduce new foods one at a time. Pair a little bit of something new along with something that's tried and true, then praise your kiddo like crazy for tasting that new, weird-looking green thing

4. Embrace family mealtime. Mealtimes are a chance to for you to interact and help your child learn. Tempting as it may be to multitask while your baby is "occupied" with a meal, don't simply place food in front of him and walk away to check your email or fold laundry. Sit with your child, talk about the shapes, colors, and texture of the foods on his plate. Include your child in family mealtime as often as you can. Even if she's not eating a full meal when you are, giving her a chance to observe and participate in the social interaction that occurs at the table offers numerous benefits. Plus, watching you and the rest of the family simply go through the physical mechanics of eating will encourage mimicking.

5. Forgive the mess. Things are going to get messy, so invest in a few good bibs and keep a damp cloth nearby for quick cleanups. Old beach towels, sheets, even plastic shower curtains make great splash mats under a baby's chair. If you're worried about clothing stains, consider stripping you baby down to just a diaper. (The photo ops alone are worth giving that trick a try!) And keep that cordless hand vacuum charged; you're going to need it. But remember, annoying as it may be to scrape dried oatmeal off the wall, it's all in the name of your little one's development.

Safety Tip: Always keep a close eye on your child when she's eating or drinking to prevent an accidental fall from a highchair and to reduce the risk of choking.

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