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October 08, 2020
It’s a common theme, parents feel confident that their baby is ready to begin solids, but they’re unsure of how to approach introducing self-feeding. Should you incorporate utensils? Should babies first master finger feeding? The journey to independence in self-feeding is a dynamic process that relies upon skills across multiple developmental domains including visual, cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, communication and social-emotional skills. By age 2, most babies can use a spoon to self-feed, while piercing with a fork continues to emerge until roughly 2 to 2 & 1/2 years old (Schuberth et al., 2010).
Why is self-feeding important?
As your baby engages in the act of attempting to self-feed, they are also simultaneously working on refining a variety of skills that will help support school readiness. Self-feeding with fingers, scooping with a spoon and piercing with a fork are practical ways to help your baby establishpincer grasp, eye-hand coordination, dexterity, visual skills and grasping patterns. These skillsare necessary for pre-writing, cutting and tool use (using a ruler, glue etc.) within the classroom environment. Learning to self-feed also gives babies a sense of independence and autonomy which helps to boost their confidence. Once your baby becomes independent in self-feeding, you’ll have your hands free to enjoy your own meal! So, how do we start?
Introduce utensils as soon as you start solids
Allow your baby to become familiar with holding, grasping and manipulating utensils as soon as possible. Offering a pre-loaded spoon filled with foods that stick (applesauce, yogurt,oatmeal, etc.) is a good start to allow for the baby to have more opportunities to successfully bring the spoon to mouth. Place the spoon on the high-chair or encourage your baby to graspthe spoon from your hand and bring to their mouth. As yourbaby gets more comfortable, start by encouraging scooping with a spoon then progress to piercing with a fork.
Be sure to engage your baby with a variety of play opportunities to practice strengthening grasp, fine motor, visual skills and eye-hand coordination. Try edible sensory bins to encourage scooping, pouring and transferring with cups or scoopers. You can also incorporate scooping and pouring practice during routine activities like bath time. Use forks, spoons and moldings during play dough activities to spark their interest in learning to manipulate utensils and tools.
Don’t rule out purees
Many popular feeding approaches suggest skipping purees all together, but purees can have a developmentally appropriate place in the introduction of solids and the path to self-feeding. Aslong as the baby isn’t solely relying on purees for a prolonged period, purees could offer developmental benefits. It’s important to expose your baby to a variety of textures to promote tolerance and acceptance. Purees can also be used to teach self-feeding with a spoon.
Consider proper positioning
For babies to effectively self-feed, they need to be able to maintain a stable posture to support grasping, coordination and fine motor control. Consider the “90-90-90” rule for positioning purposes: the hips, knees and ankles should each be bent at a 90-degree angle. Feet should be supported on a footrest to promote posture and upper body stability necessary for motor control and coordination. Elbows should be supported on the tray or table.
tip: Look for highchairs with an adjustable foot- rest!
Get the right utensils & products
Successful mealtime experiences can be a huge motivator for babies to continue working towards mastering self-feeding. Using appropriate utensils helps to minimize frustration and is key in allowing babies to feel confident in their ability to self-feed. Utensils with short handlesand ergonomic features are best for facilitating the coordination necessary for independent feeding. Introducing a spoon with a soft/shallow tip is recommended to assist babies withinitially tolerating a spoon in their mouth while easily allowing them to clear food with their lips. Try bowls, plates and mats with suction to prevent movement and spilling as babies initially learn to scoop and pierce their food.
Learn to accept the mess
This is a tough one to accept but hear me out. Sensory exploration is essential for brain development and skill acquisition in babies. Hands on experiences that simultaneously incorporate multiple senses can contribute to cognitive and motor development (Kolb & Gibb, 2011). As your baby gets older you can encourage them to assist in cleaning up the mess.
Allow self-feeding to be baby-led
Recognizing and responding to your baby’s cues is vital to mealtime and feeding success. Follow your baby’s lead as they attempt to navigate utensil use at their own pace. Avoid power struggles and forcing anything. Try having your baby be an active participant as much as possible rather than feeding them. Giving your baby a sense of control early on will help contribute to better outcomes.
Written by Christine Pollack, OTR/L
Kolb, B., & Gibb, R. (2011). Brain plasticity and behavior in the developing brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20 (4), 256-276.
Schuberth, L. M., Amirault, L. M., &; Case-Smith, J. (2010). Feeding intervention. In Occupational Therapy for Children (6th ed., pp. 452-456). Maryland Heights, Missouri: Elsevier
Content and references are for informational purposes only and are not intended to replace medical advice or occupational therapy intervention.
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