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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 2020


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