Why is it important for toddlers to feed themselves?
Learning to feed yourself is a basic life skill that starts in infancy.
Letting your toddler feed themselves helps them develop their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. It is also to acknowledge that they can make their own choices.
When will my toddler be ready to feed themselves?
When you start feeding your baby solid foods at around 6 months old, they will start to learn what is involved with feeding.
By about 6 to 9 months old, babies will start to finger feed. By the toddler years, your child will have had many meals, and lots of chances to watch people eating. At this age, they may want to have more control over their eating.
However, every child is different.
You can spoon feed your baby and give them finger foods as they learn to feed themselves.
How can I help my toddler learn to feed themself?
There are different ways you can encourage your toddler to feed themselves.
Give your child control
Letting your child make decisions about food will help them develop their independence.
When giving your baby a selection of food, let them decide:
- what they want to eat
- how much they want to eat
This is known as 'baby-led weaning'. Follow your toddler's cues and teach them to listen to their body. If they are full and don't want to eat anymore, don't force them to finish their plate. This can form unhealthy eating habits.
Let your baby explore new foods, tastes and textures at their own pace. Be patient and kind as your toddler develops eating skills.
Eat as a family
Eating as a family is important so that your child can enjoy family time and see others enjoying different foods. Your toddler will learn about feeding by watching others eat. This can help with fussy eating. Be sure to set a good example for healthy food choices.
Try to time mealtimes for when your toddler is not too tired, so that they eat well.
When including your toddler in mealtimes:
- prepare your toddler's meals from the same foods as the rest of the family
- position your toddler's highchair or booster seat at the table so they can watch you eat
- place bowls of food on the table so that each person can serve themselves, to teach your toddler about portion sizes
Using cups and utensils
Toddlers need a lot of practice to learn how to drink from a cup and use cutlery.
Breastfeeding or drinking from a bottle is a very different action to drinking from a cup or a sip cup with a straw. Your toddler might make a mess while they're learning to drink from a cup. Your child should start learning to drink from a cup at around 6 months old.
Give your toddler plastic, child-sized cutlery to practice with. By around 12 months old, your toddler should be able to hold a spoon by themselves.
Good eating position
Putting your child in a supportive position for feeding means that they will stay focussed on feeding themselves. Your toddler should be sitting upright, with their knees and hips bent at a right angle. If they are in a highchair or at a table, make sure they can easily reach their food.
How do I deal with mess and accidents?
When feeding, it's normal for toddlers to make a mess. Playing with food is your baby's way of learning about food.
Try not to invest too much emotional energy into your toddler's messy eating. Otherwise, they may learn that this is a way of getting attention.
To manage mess, you can:
- place a plastic sheet underneath your child's highchair to catch spills
- feed them outside in warmer months
- use bibs to protect clothing from spilled food
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
- looks pale or has no energy
- is drinking more than 3 serves of milk each day, which can fill them up and reduce their appetite for other food
- is not chewing and only eating pureed or very soft foods
For support, you can call the Tresillian Parent's Help Line on 1300 272 736.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: July 2023