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

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Learning to feed themselves is an important part of toddler development.
  • Babies usually start to feed themselves with their fingers at about 6 months old.
  • You can help your child learn to feed themselves by having family meals and letting them make choices about food.
  • As your child is learning to feed themselves, it's normal for them to make a mess.
  • You can manage mess by using a bib or placing plastic under your child's highchair.

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.

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

Last reviewed: July 2023

Back To Top

Need more information?

Recommended number of serves for children, adolescents and toddlers | Eat For Health

The dietary patterns in the table below provide the nutrients and energy needed for all children and adolescents of average height with sedentary to moderate activity levels. Additional serves of the five food groups or unsaturated spreads and oils or discretionary choices are needed only by children and adolescents who are taller, more active or in the higher end of a particular age band, to meet additional energy requirements.

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

Toddler tips

As ‘no’ becomes your toddler’s favourite word, read some tips to deal with common problems such as temper tantrums, fussy eating and bedwetting.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Foods for toddlers - Ngala

For toddlers, nutritional intake and amount is measured over weeks rather than days,quite differentto the more predictable adult eating patterns with which we are familiar

Read more on Ngala website

Fussy eating in toddlers and children

Fussy eating in children is normal but it can be a battle at mealtimes. Here are some tips to help curb fussy eating and encourage good eating habits.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Vegetarian and vegan feeding guide for toddlers

Toddlers can eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, as long as the foods they are eating contain enough energy, protein and nutrients for them to grow.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Toddlers and fussy eating - Better Health Channel

If you restrict yourself to a narrow range of foods, your child will notice and copy your wariness.

Read more on Better Health Channel website


Watching your toddler learn and explore the world is such a wonderful time in your life. It can also be one of the most challenging.

Read more on Karitane website

How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums | Tresillian

How to deal with toddler tantrums, toilet training, fussy eaters and how you can ultimately promote positive behaviours.

Read more on Tresillian website

Preschoolers nutrition & fitness | Raising Children Network

Want to know about keeping preschoolers active and eating healthy food? Check out our extensive resources on physical activity and healthy eating for kids.

Read more on website

Healthy eating for kids

Encourage healthy eating habits for kids by shopping healthy and planning meals to minimise temper tantrums at the dinner table and keep fussy eaters happy.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby 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.