Encouraging self-feeding in toddlers

A simple, easy guide to get your toddler to self feed

Parents in India, especially mothers, often feed children with their own hands at every mealtime, rather than allowing them to self-feed. Also, mothers try to keep their child on breast milk for as long as they can. Breastfeeding is no doubt, the best option for the healthy growth of an infant, along with being a great way to connect with the child and show a mother's love. However, once your child grows up, it becomes important to teach them to feed themselves, so that they can become independent. This prepares them for the future and encourages them to make the right food choices. If your toddler refuses to feed himself, it is time you understand the need for it and follow some simple steps that will help him or her.

As per the dietary guidelines in India, mothers can start giving their babies complementary foods apart from breast milk, once the infant reaches six months of age. Breastfeeding can however continue until the age of two years. But as per paediatricians, the earlier the transition to solid foods, the better it is for the child's growth and development.

The importance of encouraging toddlers to self-feed

In our country, toddler self-feeding is rarely encouraged. Most mothers fear that the child will not eat enough if they are left to eat on their own. Most Indian households are joint families even today, and as grandparents or other members are available at home, the need for teaching self-feeding is not felt.

The benefits of self-feeding are much more than just ensuring that your child gets vital nutrients from the food he or she eats. Once the baby can firmly sit and start grasping objects around him or her, it is time you start introducing small amounts of finger foods. All babies are curious and they tend to put everything in their mouths. You can make use of this opportunity and let them pick up from recommended foods like bananas and soft cheese cubes to put into their mouths. Yes! You will have to keep a close eye on every one of their movements but do encourage them.

Touching, picking, using the spoon, and grasping the bowl or plate are basic motor skills that babies develop with self-feeding. Their sensory skills also develop, as they start exploring the tastes, textures, smells, and colours of different foods. Slowly, the child will learn about food, how much to eat and when he or she is full.

Some of the key benefits of encouraging your toddler to self-feed are:

  • The baby will learn to recognize and grasp things quickly.
  • It will improve the baby’s hand and eye coordination.
  • The baby’s sensory skills will get refined.
  • The baby will gain independence quickly.
  • Babies will learn to make use of their mouths and hands better.

Teaching toddlers to eat by themselves

It is always best to teach toddlers to start picking and eating food with their hands, and by using their fingers. Toddles start picking and putting things in their mouth from 2 to 3 months of age. They can easily pick up cut fruits, bread, soft cheese, and biscuits. Let them practice and make it exciting for them by providing colourful options.

The next step is to introduce a small teaspoon that is light to hold. Initially, they might find it difficult to pick and balance the food with it, but have patience. They are quick learners and will master the skill by themselves. They will also start loving to feed themselves over time.

Follow these steps too:

  1. Let the baby practice: Practice makes everything perfect. Be it with a utensil or with hands, let your baby practise self-feeding. If the toddler refuses to feed himself, allow him to eat the way he likes, but later again, try.
  2. Encourage: The first thing that a baby will do is use his or her hands to put things in the mouth. So, place small bites (as mentioned earlier) in front of your child and let him or her pick them up with small soft hands.
  3. Encourage using utensils: You too can use similar utensils and eat with your child to encourage this. He or she will always try and imitate you. Guide your little one with your hands and show how to use spoons and hands.
  4. Keep an eye while eating: While the baby learns to eat by himself, he also discovers new colours and textures. So, stay close to him while he eats, and monitor how he does so and how much he puts in his mouth.
  5. Ensure that he does not choke: Keep an eye on the amount of food he puts in his mouth. Gagging is normal as babies tend to stuff their mouths with more food than they should. But choking can be hazardous and the child may find it difficult to breathe as food enters the airways. It can happen when too much food enters the mouth and he tries to gulp everything down together. Always give small bites and foods that slide down easily like ripe bananas, papayas or even small pieces of soft bread.

Apart from following these steps to make your baby learn self-feeding, practise eating together, be prepared for some mess, and have patience. Learning to self-feed takes time, so let your child be comfortable and take his or her own time to learn and adapt.

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