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Children learning to feed themselves

6-18 months

When children are learning to feed themselves, it can be messy and sometimes frustrating – but it’s an important stage. Here are some practical tips to help you and your child.

Feeding themselves: why it’s an important stage

When children are learning to feed themselves, it’s an important stage for lots of reasons.

First, children are learning to eat independently, which is a skill they need to develop for the later years of early childhood – and for life.

Second, this stage involves lots of feeling, squeezing and dropping food. It might seem messy, but it’s one of the ways your child develops fine motor skills like learning to hold a spoon.

Third, this is a chance to help your child learn more about the taste, texture, smell and temperature of food. For example, she’ll learn that it’s easier to pick up a piece of banana or kiwi fruit than a handful of yoghurt or spaghetti bolognaise. 

What to expect when children are learning to feed themselves 

Once you introduce solid food, your child might show signs of wanting to feed himself. For example, he might start reaching out for the spoon or trying to take food off your plate. 

It’s normal for your child to want to feed herself and it’s great to encourage this – although it’s often messy and can sometimes be frustrating. 

Be patient – your child will get there eventually. You might like to keep a camera handy to catch the funny side of this feeding stage.

Starting with finger foods
Finger foods are soft, bite-sized pieces of food that are easy for baby to pick up and mash between his gums or teeth. If your child is showing interest in feeding himself, you can start with finger foods that you can put in your child’s hand, like a small piece of soft fruit or soft, cooked vegetables like potato or pumpkin. 

A good way to start is by putting a few pieces of food within your baby’s reach. You can add more when she finishes them or drops them. This way the food won’t all end up on the floor at the start.

Using a spoon
Most babies won’t get the hang of using a spoon until they’re about 18 months old. But it’s a good idea to let your child use a spoon from a much earlier age. Usually babies will let you know when they want to start, by constantly reaching for the spoon.

A top tip is to feed your baby with one spoon while he holds another one.

To prevent choking, always supervise your child when she’s learning to feed himself. Make sure she’s sitting up, and not playing or crawling around. Some foods – for example, whole nuts and hard foods like chopped raw carrot – are choking hazards. Children who are learning to eat shouldn’t have these foods.

How to handle mess and food play

Messy eating and playing with food are normal parts of your baby’s development when he’s learning to eat independently.

If you find the mess stressful, it can help if you:

  • put a bib on your baby
  • cut food into strips or fingers so that it’s easier to pick up and eat
  • let your baby eat with her hands
  • put a plastic sheet or newspaper under the highchair
  • take the highchair outside if you have a safe flat area.
It’s normal for your baby to drop or throw food on the floor. If you react when he does this, he might think it’s the start of an exciting new game. One way to handle this is to ignore it. Calmly pick up the food without a fuss. Or you can leave the food on the floor until the meal is over, so you just have the one clean-up.

Using a cup

Once your baby has reached six months, she’s ready to learn to drink from a cup. Like learning to eat, this can be a slow and messy process.

Here are some tips to help when your child is learning to drink from a cup:

  • Give your child a small plastic, non-breakable cup that’s easy to grip and hold.
  • Let your child play with the cup first so that he gets used to the way it feels.
  • The first few times your child uses the cup, guide her by holding the cup too.
  • Fill the cup only halfway to reduce spills.
  • Give your child water to start with. Water is easy to clean up when it spills.
  • At family mealtimes use a cup yourself to show your child how it’s done – babies love to copy their parents.
Children aged 6-12 months should have only cooled, boiled tap water, or breastmilk or infant formula. After 12 months, children can have full-fat cow’s milk. Drinks like fruit juice, soft drinks and flavoured milks aren’t healthy. They have lots of sugar and increase the risk of tooth decay.

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Last updated or reviewed
13-10-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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