Teaching Your Baby to Self-Feed

AngelaRD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 5 minutes

What should I know about teaching my baby to feed themself?

  • Signs your baby is ready to self-feed

  • Ideas for first finger foods

  • Tips for introducing spoons and cups to your baby

As your baby becomes more experienced with eating, you may notice them becoming more interested in feeding themself. This transition to self-feeding usually starts between 7 and 9 months.1,2,3

Signs your baby is ready to self-feed include

  • Grabbing the spoon while you are holding it

  • Reaching for food from their (or your!) plate

  • Even grabbing other objects, like toys, and bringing them to their mouth4,5

Once your baby starts showing an interest in feeding themself, it’s important to provide many opportunities for them to practice this skill. The key to mastering self-feeding is to let your baby try and try again.

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Does my baby need teeth to eat finger foods?

Don’t wait until your baby’s teeth emerge to start finger foods! Babies do not actually need teeth in order to enjoy foods beyond purees. In fact, the teeth we use to chew are the molars, and those teeth generally don’t come in until well after baby’s first birthday.15

Babies’ gums are incredibly strong – if your little one has ever gnawed on your finger when teething, you know! And as long as the foods you present to your baby are size and texture appropriate, they can chew perfectly well without a full mouth of teeth.14

Ideally, the food you provide your little one should be soft and pea-sized to prevent choking. Make sure the food is ‘smushable’ between your fingers so that it’s soft enough to be gummed by your baby.

How to start teaching your baby to self-feed with finger foods

A good way to start is placing a few small pieces of food on your baby’s highchair tray. Let your baby feel it. It may seem as if baby is just playing with the food, but touching and playing is a step in their learning process.2,5

Initially, your baby may grab for the food with a raking motion, using the entire fist to move the food toward their mouth. Grabbing the food in this way is called the palmer grasp, which is when baby’s fingers close over an object (such as your finger) in the palm of their hand.16

Around 9 months, your little one will develop the fine motor skill of grasping food with their thumb and forefinger, called the pincer grasp.5

Read more: Introducing Solids: First Foods and Advancing Textures

When to practice self-feeding

You can go about practicing self-feeding in many ways. First, try setting aside time at the beginning of the meal for practice. Since baby is hungrier at the start, this may help in motivating your little one to bring the food to their mouth themself.

Another way to try is to simply leave several pieces of food on baby’s tray to play and practice with while you alternate with spoon feeding. Allow your little one to try and put food in their mouth, then practice chewing and swallowing. Be sure that baby’s mouth is clear of food before offering anything from the spoon.

If your baby gets frustrated, allow them to finish the meal and eat how they normally would (such as with spoon feeding). Just remember to keep trying at other meals throughout the day (and every day).

Read more: Meal Plan for 6 to 9 Month Old Baby

First finger foods

The foods you give your baby to practice self-feeding should be soft, easily ‘smushed’ between your fingers, and cut into small pea-sized pieces.

Here are some ideas for first finger foods:

  • Small pieces of ripe, soft bananas, avocados, peaches, mango, kiwi

  • Soft cooked sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, turnips

  • Grated or soft cooked (skinless) apples and pears

  • Soft cooked whole grain pasta

  • Scrambled eggs

  • Cubes, strings, shredded, or small pea-sized pieces of cheese

  • Cooked shreds, small diced pieces, or ground cooked chicken, fish, or turkey

  • Berries cut into quarters

  • Beans cut into halves or quarters

In addition to the above ideas, your baby can eat bits of what you eat (without added salt or sugar) including different fruits, veggies, grains, meat, beans, spices and seasonings as long as the foods are small and soft enough to reduce choking risk.

Foods that pose a risk of choking should be avoided. Examples include nuts, whole grapes, hot dogs, raw carrots, raisins, popcorn, and portions of food that are too large.14 Also note that honey should not be given to infants before the age of 1 year.

Read more: Preventing Choking in Infants and Toddlers

Time to practice with spoons and cups

Learning how to use spoons and cups not only involves demonstrating how to use each one, but also allowing your baby lots of practice both with your help and without. Let your little one get messy as they step into their independence with eating and drinking!

Teaching your baby to use a spoon

After your baby masters self-feeding with their hands, the next step is offering utensils. Most children become good at using spoons and forks to self-feed between 15 to 18 months, but that doesn’t mean you need to wait until then to start exposing them to utensils.1,6,7

Just as your baby needed a lot of practice eating with their hands, they will also need many opportunities to attempt eating with utensils. A good way to begin encouraging this transition is to give them their own baby or toddler-friendly spoon or fork.

Teaching your baby to use a cup

Learning to drink from a cup can also begin around this time.4,7 Use an open, sippy, or straw cup and allow your little one to practice with a small amount of water. Since formula and/or breastmilk will still provide a large amount of nutrition and all of the hydration for your little one at this age, only about 4 to 8 ounces of water total spread through the day are recommended.8

Letting your baby drink water from a cup on their own will not only build their fine motor skills (which may include lots of spills!), but will also help them form the important habit of drinking water.8

Which should you use: cups? Sippy cups? Straw cups? Learn more here: Transitioning to Cups for Babies and Toddlers

Which foods to use when practicing using a spoon

Thicker foods like oatmeal, mashed sweet potatoes, or yogurt blended with fruit are good practice foods since they will more easily stick to the utensil. It will be messy for a while but just remember that practice makes progress.

Once your baby has gotten the hang of dipping the utensil into the food and bringing it to their mouth, consider giving baby their own small bowl. There are some bowls with suction cups on the bottom and some that are attached to a mat – these may help prevent too many spills.

Let your baby to feed themself from their bowl while still feeding them from yours. Soon enough they’ll be eating a full meal without your help!

Remember, it is a learning process; it will take quite a while before your little one is neatly and skillfully feeding themself. In the meantime, have fun and be prepared to get messy!

Tips for teaching your baby to feed themself

Supervise your baby during meals

It’s important to monitor your baby as they begin to eat more independently. Your baby is not only getting used to a new way of eating, but new textures too. Remaining by your baby during meals will allow you to monitor their tolerance for new textures and the amounts they are putting into their mouth.9

Know the difference between gagging and choking

Gagging is the body’s natural defense against choking and is very common when babies start eating solid foods.10,11 Gagging may occur if the baby has too much food in their mouth or if the food moves towards the back of the mouth before they have chewed it sufficiently. While your baby may look scared and be making gagging noises, baby’s airway is not blocked. The gag reflex helps baby move the food back toward the front of the mouth so they may chew it more before swallowing.

Choking is when a piece of food becomes lodged in the airways causing baby to stop breathing.12 Your baby will be silent and perhaps flailing their arms. Choking is life threatening and requires immediate attention.

Learn more: Preventing Choking in Infants and Toddlers

Expect and embrace the mess

Teaching your baby to feed themself will be messy. Invest in a few good bibs or apron type smocks that can better catch the food. Consider placing an old towel underneath the highchair if you are concerned with food falling on the floor. Keep a damp washcloth or paper towel by your side to help with spills.

Enjoy family meals

Babies learn from you! If your baby is eating meals with the rest of the family, they will observe how everyone else is using their utensils to feed themselves, eating healthy foods, as well as other appropriate mealtime behaviors.4,13

Read more: Family Meals: Developing Healthy Eating Patterns

Be patient

Learning to self-feed takes time. Allow plenty of time for meals and never rush your baby to finish. Your little one is eating at the pace they are most comfortable with, allowing them to boost their learning.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness

Learning to Love Healthy Foods

Understanding your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues: Responsive Feeding

Introducing Solids: Baby Led Weaning

Feeding Tips for Healthy Weight Gain in Infants and Toddlers

Nutrient Needs and Feeding Tips for 6 to 12 Month Olds

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