It can be frustrating (and scary) when your once ravenous baby suddenly shuns spoon-feeding. But it's completely normal. Here's why it happens and how to adjust.
"Help! My baby just stopped eating!" This is a common opening to many emails and phone calls I receive from worried parents.
I remember one case especially vividly. A 10 month old girl suddenly started refusing all her meals. When I visited the family at their home, the girl's mom tried to feed her some mashed-up chicken soup. The baby clamped her mouth shut, pushed the spoon away, and arched her back, screaming. Every attempt to feed her with a spoon was met with a similar response. But guess what happened when we scooped some of the food right on the tray of her high chair? The little girl promptly picked up every single piece of chicken and veggies with her fingers and ate them all!
When I later followed up with the parents, they told me that the girl had been happily and almost exclusively self-feeding since my last visit. They never thought that letting her be more independent would make such a difference in their mealtimes. And although the amounts she was eating were not as consistent as they were with spoon-feeding, it was obvious that overall she was getting all the nutrition she needed to grow and develop.
Refusing the spoon is normal.
Refusing a spoon is actually an important milestone—no less significant than the first tooth or the first step. Most babies go through this developmentally appropriate stage at around 9-11 months when they do not want to play a passive role in feeding anymore. They want to do it all by themselves! Of course, all children develop at different rates and some babies are happy to be fed with a spoon longer, especially those who were born prematurely or have oral-motor delays. But a vast majority of babies rebel against the spoon shortly before they turn one.
But it's scary (for parents).
As parents, we choose to control many areas of our children's lives. Eating is no exception. When we allow babies to self-feed more, we may need to give up the power we have over what and how much they are eating. We fear that our baby will eat little of what we offer, choose less nutritious foods, or decide to eat nothing at all.
If seeing a barely touched dinner gives you nightmares, it is encouraging to know that research shows that small children are great at self-regulating. And if nutritional balance is your concern, try recording everything your baby is eating over a week's time. Chances are you will see a decent intake from all the food groups (as long as you're offering a healthy variety, of course).
As someone who often works with parents of "problem eaters" I know that it can be especially hard to trust your little one around eating if your baby is a cautious eater, has a clinical diagnosis, exhibits strong food preferences, or is smaller than most babies his age. That's why, if your intuition tells you that your case is more complex, always talk to your doctor or dietitian to rule out underlying issues that may affect your child's eating.
- If your baby is nearing 9 months, be ready for this milestone and work on building up your baby's repertoire of finger foods and utensil skills so he is getting enough calories and nutrition when the spoon goes flying to the floor. Most babies are ready for finger foods as early as at 6 months.
- Avoid even subtle pressure techniques like distracting your baby at meals. Playing "airplane" or using TV or even books to get the required number of spoons into your baby will likely contribute to her spoon aversion, make mealtimes more tense, and teach your child to ignore satiety signals.
- Get the gear. I really like the ezpz mat. It sticks to the table and has a built-in bowl so spills and plate-throwing can be minimized. Be prepared for messes and more clean-up than usual, but you will be rewarded by pleasant mealtimes and a baby who can do lots by himself!
- Trust your baby to choose how much and what to eat, even if it looks like he needs your assistance. See how my determined 12 month-old was infuriated by my attempts to "help" her eat with a spoon as I was trying to get more green peas in her. Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeding your baby with a spoon from time to time; just make sure it doesn't spoil the mealtime fun for anyone.
- Establish a structure in eating so that your baby has an opportunity to sit down and have some food every 2-3 hours during the day. This way, even if she refuses one of the meals completely, another chance to eat will be just around the corner. Note that toddlers and preschoolers do not need to eat that often and can wait for 3-4 hours between meals and snacks.
Misunderstanding the normal spoon-refusal milestone can lead to major feeding struggles. But, if we parents can take our baby's lead and be more responsive and trusting in our feeding relationship, it doesn't have to. The little girl I mentioned before has turned into a toddler with great eating habits who happily enjoys a variety of foods...as long as she's feeding herself.
Natalia Stasenko MS, RD, CDN is a pediatric dietitian based in London and New York. She offers an online, one-on-one support program for parents of picky eaters called Feeding Bytes, and is the mother of three. Natalia is the cowriter of the cookbook Real Baby Food, and when not writing, teaching or consulting, she is in the kitchen cooking and eating with her family. Follow Natalia on Twitter, read more of her stories on tribecanutrition.com and download her guide on Smart Snacks That Help Kids Eat Dinner here.