Encouraging children to learn to feed themselves

Dr Philippa Rundle talks us through eating habits in the early years, and at what stages to encourage children to eat independently.

The most vital instinct for a newborn baby’s survival is feeling hungry and crying to be fed. The sucking reflex is strong in a healthy newborn and they will usually suck vigorously on a breast or bottle until they are satisfied. At this stage the baby is totally dependent on his mother/carer for nourishment. As he grows older and stronger he will learn to feed himself and enjoy family mealtimes.

At the age of around six months he can begin to drink from a cup held by an adult and by eight months will help to hold the cup himself.

Finger foods, such as rusks, soft fruit or bread can be offered from ten months and he will enjoy picking up pieces using thumb and forefinger. He will also play generally with a cup and spoon and recognise these items.

After his first birthday he may soon be able to hold a cup for drinking without help, and begin to use a spoon by himself. Some will be spilt at first as babies tend to turn over the spoon. If you spread out a plastic sheet under his high chair the mess will be easier to manage. It is important for him to learn self-feeding even at this messy stage. After a month he will use the spoon very well and can enjoy a variety of flavours and textures. He can eat the same food as other members of the family if it is cut up for him.

From about 3 years he will have learned to use a spoon and fork together without help. This helps his developing independence, and ensures that he can use both hands skilfully together. At this stage it is wise to offer small helpings to start with as a plateful can look enormous to a child. Introduce new foods in small quantities and do not worry if they are left aside at first. Children will have a good appetite if they are hungry, and if not just remove the plate without any fuss. Try not to make an issue of any particular foods as children are more likely to reject them if they feel it is being forced on them.

If your child has difficulty achieving the milestones suggested then you should discuss this with your health visitor or doctor. By encouraging your child to feed himself independently and offering a variety of nourishing foods you will be starting him on the road towards a healthy lifestyle.

Useful links from external sites

CBeebies Grown Up Support, Developing likes and dislikes

Written by

Philippa Rundle

Philippa is a paediatrician with a focus on child behaviour and development. Also a specialist advisor to Gina Ford's website, her success rate for improving sleeping patterns in a fortnight stands at 100%.