Self feeding is a skill. Like all skills, it may take different time for different babies to master. Some are learning at a faster rate than others. Turning 6 month old does not mean that a baby magically turns into an expert self feeder.
Imagine if all babies were expected to roll over or walk when they turned certain age. Instead, there is a time frame when we expect them to meet certain milestones. For example, walking typically happens between 9 and 15 months.
Notice the gap?
But does it mean that we carry the baby in our arms all the time until he can literally jump out and run?
Of course not.
We provide them with a safe place and multiple opportunities to practice getting up, stumbling, falling and then do it all over again until they are ready to walk.
Learning to self feed is no different.
The first time you give your baby a piece of finger food at about 6 months, or when he is ready for solids, he is equally likely to do any of the three things:
He will grab it immediately with his palm and bring it to his mouth to suck and gnaw.
He will work hard at trying to pick it up with his palm but not succeed in picking it up or bringing it to the mouth.
He will just stare at it and maybe touch very carefully.
He will start crying and push the food off his plate.
And guess what? All of these reactions are normal.
It may take anywhere from 1 day to a few months for your baby to learn how to self feed. In the meanwhile, our job as parents is to provide frequent opportunities to practice. This means having the baby join family meals and offering a few finger foods on his tray or plate, whether you are giving him purees or doing Baby Led Weaning.
Should you be worried about calories and nutrition as your baby learns to self feed?
At this age, most of your baby’s calories come from breast milk or formula. But his iron needs increase to 11 mg so it is best to include some iron rich food in his diet, especially if you are breastfeeding. (Breast milk is low in iron, although it’s bioavailability is high). Check these iron rich finger foods appropriate from 6 months.
If you see that your baby takes longer to learn to self feed, make and freeze a few iron rich purees like meat, chicken, bean or spinach or buy fortified cereal.
To make sure his nutritional needs are met, offer some iron rich finger foods or purees twice a day. This way, you have a peace of mind knowing that your baby is getting the important nutrition and your baby has some stress free space and time to learn the important self feeding skills.
How to help your baby to learn to self feed
1. Eat with your baby often.
Your baby will learn from watching you and his siblings. He may even grab some of the food off your plate – mine certainly preferred whatever I was having, even if it was the same dinner!
Even if you are also feeding your baby purees, still have him join family meals so he can practice self feeding and get exposure to family foods.
2. Offer a very small amount of finger foods.
Small babies get overwhelmed very easily and may refuse to even try to eat if they have a mountain of food on their tray or plate.
Instead, serve only 2-3 pieces of finger food so they have room to maneuver they hands and practice. Have more food ready in case she needs another helping.
3. Use a “hands off approach”.
Enjoy your own meal instead of closely watching every bite your baby is taking or every attempt at self feeding he makes.
Imagine someone was looking at you at all times ready to jump to help or cheer when you were concentrated on doing something new?
4. Cut the food in proper sizes.
Stick shaped finger food 2-2.5 inches long is the best for this age. Your baby will be using his whole palm to pick up food, he is not likely to master finger/pincer grasp until much later, at 8-10 months.
If, after your baby grabbed the food using his palm, there nothing poking out available for eating, he may get confused, frustrated and lose interest in learning to eat.
5. Do not panic when your baby gags.
Sometimes babies put finger food too far in their mouth and trigger the gagging reflex. In small babies, gagging reflex is at the front part of the tongue. It gradually moves to the very back as they grow up.
Gagging is a safety mechanism helping babies get rid of the food they are not ready for yet. As they learn to bite off and chew food, they may also gag occasionally if the pieces they are trying to swallow are too big.
Gagging is not choking. (link) If your baby gags when trying to self feed, let her work it out yourself. You will notice that your baby gags less frequently as he learns to self feed, because he will know how not to put the food too far in the mouth and also will get better at chewing it properly before swallowing.
6. Make sure your baby is not hungry.
A staving student is not a good student. Give your baby a breast milk or formula feed if he is hungry before the mealtime. Remember, he will not be able to actually swallow much of the finger foods, so we cannot rely on them for calories.
Tell me, at what age did your baby start to self feed?