I’m often approached by parents of babies between 9 months and 12 months old who are concerned that their children aren’t learning to self-feed as quickly as other babies. Here’s an example of what one parent asked me: “My son is 9 months and has been eating finger foods since about 7 months however he will not feed himself. Is there something I can do to help this? Or will it just come to him? How do I help my baby feed himself” Without doing a full assessment of a child, I can’t say for certain what’s causing a child to learn self-feeding slower than their peers. But I can share the common causes that I see and their solutions.
Common Causes for Baby Not Self-Feeding:
- Medical conditions or developmental concerns. Because you didn't mention it, I'm assuming that your son doesn't have any medical conditions or developmental concerns that would affect his dexterity/ motor control.
- Missing role models. Kids learn from watching others - particularly older kids and adults. If no one else is eating there isn't anyone to act as a role model for how to do it. Also, eating is a social activity for us human beings. Kids of all ages eat better when adults join them at the table.
- Temperament (also known as personality). Some little ones are what I call "outsourcers". They're happy to sit back and let others do things for them instead of doing the hard work of figuring it out themselves. Because learning to self-feed does take work at this stage.
- Over-helpful caregivers. Sometimes parents (and other caregivers) have such strong desires to help their little ones that they jump in and "help" instead of sitting back and allowing their little one figure things out for themselves. This can sometimes also be fuelled by impatience and/or anxiety about your little one getting enough to eat. The result is a learned helplessness.
Solutions to Help Baby Feed Himself:
If the cause is #1 then working with an Occupational Therapist can be a great help.
The solution to #2 is to sit and eat with your child. Ideally, eat the same foods too. This way you're sending a message loud and clear that you want him to eat what’s in front of him. And, you’re creating the social environment that’s most conducive to eating and learning.
The solution to #3 and #4 is the same. Resist the urge to jump in and "help". You're actually being more helpful by holding off and allowing him to learn the skills himself.
Take Home for How to Help My Baby Feed Himself:
Note that the most common cause that I see are # 3 and 4. In other words, a combination of a child’s natural temperament and parents who are either overly anxious or keen to help.
It’s a classic case of fantastic intentions inadvertently taking things in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, it’s super easy to fix! Babies this age are compelled to master the skills that they see others doing. Just like learning any new skill, kids learn to feed themselves with finger foods at different rates. They want to learn how to self-feed, we just need to create the environment that supports them in mastering it. When you do, they’ll learn this new skill in their own timing that’s perfect just for them.