Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Toddler development: Learning to feed themselves

4-minute read

Learning to feed yourself is a basic life skill that starts in infancy. Babies will start to learn what’s involved in eating solid foods from about 6 months old. By the toddler years, they’ll have had hundreds of meals and snacks, and the opportunity to observe many people eating.

When will my toddler be ready to feed themselves?

Most babies should be feeding themselves with finger foods from a family diet by their first birthday.

Many parents who believe in the 'baby-led weaning' approach feel that from the time a baby is introduced to solid food, they should be given the choice about what, and how much, they eat.

Why is it important for toddlers to feed themselves?

Letting your toddler feed themselves is a way of acknowledging they can make their own choices. It also helps develop their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

Toddlers who are still spoon-fed don’t learn to control the rate at which food goes into their mouth. Learning how much food can comfortably fit into their mouth, and be chewed and swallowed – then knowing when to put more food in – is a series of steps that is built over hours of practice.

Using utensils, cups and plates

Toddlers need a lot of practice to learn how to drink from a ‘sipper’, or cup with a straw, without spilling. Sucking from a breast or bottle teat is a very different action to drinking from a cup. Expect your toddler to make a mess for the first few weeks when they’re adjusting to drinking from a cup.

Make sure your toddler has a plastic spoon and fork for practice. But expect them to still use both of their hands a lot. Most children are ambidextrous (using both hands equally) until they develop a dominant, or preferred, hand between 2 and 4 years old.

It’s normal for toddlers to:

  • make a mess when eating – this is a big part of the eating experience
  • pick up the plate or bowl and wave it around in the air
  • tip over the plate, spilling food onto the tray of their highchair
  • put the plate on their head
  • spread more food around than what goes into their mouth
  • love a particular food one day and reject it the next

Dealing with mess and accidents

Try not to invest too much emotional energy into your toddler’s messy eating. Otherwise they will learn that this is a way of getting attention.

Place some newspaper or a plastic sheet underneath their highchair to catch spills. In warmer months, feed them outside on the grass or the porch.

Use plastic backed bibs, 'pelican' style bibs or smock-style coveralls to protect clothing from spilled food.

How can I help my toddler learn how to feed themself?

  • Be a role model. Position your toddler’s highchair or booster seat at the table so they can watch you eat. Make healthy food choices yourself.
  • If possible, let your toddler eat with the other children in the family. Children are great mimics and fussy eating is often solved by seeing other children at mealtimes.
  • Try to time your toddler’s meals for when they are hungry and not overtired. An ideal dinner time is around 5pm — most toddlers are ready for their evening meal by then.
  • Provide your toddler with child-sized cutlery and cut food into small, child-sized pieces. Don’t overload your toddler’s plate.
  • Let your toddler choose what they want to eat from the choices available. Consider placing serving bowls of food on the table with each person serving themselves - help your toddler with portion sizes.
  • Follow your toddler’s cues that they are full and don’t want to eat anymore.
  • Avoid making your toddler the focus of each meal. Let them share in the conversation and social interaction.
  • Be patient and kind as your toddler develops eating skills in their own time.

When should I seek help?

You should seek help from your doctor or child health nurse if your toddler:
  • is not growing or, you have any concerns with their development
  • is not interested in eating, refusing food, looks listless or has no energy
  • is drinking more than 3 serves of milk each day (milk can be filling, meaning toddlers don’t want to eat other food)
  • is not chewing and only eating pureed or very soft foods

You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

Vegetarian feeding guide for babies and toddlers

Is your baby ready for solids? If you plan to start your baby on a vegetarian diet, you may need to take extra care to ensure they get adequate nutrition.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Newborn nutrition: bottle-feeding | Raising Children Network

Get reliable information and tips on bottle-feeding newborn babies with articles on preparing formula, giving bottles, cleaning bottles and supplementing.

Read more on website

Child and Family Health Service • Feeding

The websites below are trusted sources of information and will assist in answering your queries on feeding your baby and toddler

Read more on Child and Family Health Service website

Dental care for infants and toddlers

Baby dental care starts from their first tooth. Learn about the correct dental care for infants from bottle feeding to eating solid foods.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Introducing Solid Foods » Nip Allergies in the Bub

Introducing Solid Foods Feed your baby their first foods when they are ready – usually around 6 months, but not before 4 months

Read more on National Allergy Strategy website

Baby formula & bottle-feeding for babies | Raising Children Network

Baby formula is the only safe alternative to breastmilk for the first 12 months. All Australian cow’s milk-based formulas meet strict standards. Read more.

Read more on website

Breastmilk & breastfeeding: benefits | Raising Children Network

Breastmilk – designed by nature for human babies. Breastmilk and breastfeeding have many health and practical benefits for mothers and babies. Read more.

Read more on website

Food - Baby's first foods | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

The introduction of solid food is an important stage in your baby's development

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Healthy drinks for kids & teens | Raising Children Network

What are healthy drinks for kids and teens? Water is best. Low-fat milk is OK. Soft drink, cordial and fruit juice have a lot of sugar and are best avoided.

Read more on website

Daily Routines For Newborn, Baby & Toddler| Tresillian

The feed, play, sleep routine is the core structure of your baby’s day but changes as your baby grows and develops. Find tips according to your baby's age.

Read more on Tresillian website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.