Self-feeding is a skill that can be introduced as early as 6 months. Remember, just because we want babies to learn self-feeding, it does not mean we have to only follow baby-led weaning. As recommended earlier, you can try the combination weaning approach (feed them certain foods and also let them eat certain foods on their own).
Today, we’ll look at some practical tips on how to encourage your baby to feed themselves.
Two Stages of Self-Feeding
Understanding these stages will help you provide appropriate support and guidance to your little one.
1) 6 months: Palmar grasp
Babies have the Palmar grasp from the time they’re born, and it starts to fade around 6 months. A Palmar grasp means they hold things using their palm or entire fist. At 6 months, babies start using a “raking action” with their fingers – where they use their palm and fingers to grasp and hold objects and food.
To encourage self-feeding during this stage, offer them larger pieces of food that they can grasp with their whole palm. Foods like wedge- or stick-shaped items work well.
2) 9 months onwards: Pincer grasp
At around 9 months old, babies develop the pincer grasp, which allows them to hold objects or food using their thumb and forefinger. This is an exciting milestone as they become more proficient in self-feeding.
During this stage, introduce smaller pieces of food that they can pick up with their pincer grasp. This further refines their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
How to Encourage Babies to Self-Feed
1) Provide ample opportunities
To help your baby develop self-feeding skills, offer them plenty of chances to practice. Remember, learning any life skill takes time and patience for both babies and parents. Consistency is key, so make sure you provide regular opportunities for them to learn and master self-feeding. Be patient and supportive throughout the process.
2) Set them up for happiness
During mealtime, place your baby in a high chair or booster seat to create a comfortable and secure environment for self-feeding. Place finger foods on their plate or feeding tray, as well as purees or mashed foods that they can scoop up with their hands. This allows them to explore different textures, shapes, colors, and smells, making mealtime an engaging sensory experience.
3) Lead by example
Babies learn by observing and imitating, so make sure to eat with your baby. Sit together during mealtime and demonstrate proper eating and chewing actions. This simple act of modeling can greatly influence their understanding of self-feeding. They'll be more motivated to mimic your actions and learn from you.
4) Enhance their grip with textures
Some foods can be slippery and challenging for little hands to grasp. To improve their grip, add texture to these foods. For example, you can coat bananas with desiccated coconut, ground flax seeds, or nut powders, allowing your baby to hold them more easily.
5) Scoop or spoon it up
Self-feeding doesn't have to be limited to using hands alone. You can gradually introduce spoons to your baby's self-feeding journey.
Offer a preloaded spoon where the food is already scooped, and let your baby practice bringing it to their mouth. This helps develop their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
6) Introduce water
Drinking from an open cup is another important aspect of self-feeding. Start by offering small open cups and allow your baby to learn the skill of sipping water on their own. This encourages independence and further develops their self-feeding abilities.
Tips for Safe Self-Feeding
1) Age-appropriate foods: When offering foods for self-feeding, ensure they are soft and mashable. Avoid round, small, hard, rubbery, or slippery foods as they can pose a choking risk.
We shared a list of foods to avoid in our earlier chapter on Choking, which can be found here.
Here are some ideas of good foods for self-feeding:
2) Supervised meals: Always be present with your baby while they're eating, especially when they are younger and still developing their self-feeding skills. Your supervision ensures their safety and allows you to intervene if needed.
3) Understand gagging vs. choking: As your baby explores self-feeding, they may gag occasionally. Gagging is a normal protective reflex and should not be a cause for alarm. It's essential to differentiate between gagging and choking.
When babies start to learn self-feeding, they are likely to gag the first few times – just until their mouths learn how to handle different foods. Gagging is perfectly normal, as it’s a protective mechanism to prevent babies from choking. (Refer to an earlier article on Gagging here if you need a refresher.)
Research shows that babies that learn to handle foods earlier in their learning journey will gag more initially. But don’t worry because gagging will reduce and stop with time.
Encouraging self-feeding in babies is a journey that promotes independence, sensory exploration, and healthy eating habits. Embrace the messiness and enjoy this exciting stage of your baby's development. Happy self-feeding, little ones!