Feeding your baby real food is an important step for all parents. But baby self feeding is a goal for all parents, especially during the first year of life.
The stakes are high for developing healthy food preferences and learning to eat, so don’t let these four common mistakes slow your baby down.
Baby feeding and the journey that goes with it is not always smooth-sailing, or easy.
In my many years of working with new mothers as a pediatric nutritionist, I know that the decisions made in this first year are always made with good intentions.
However, some decisions are made out of fear, hype, or lack of knowledge.
As a result, feeding mistakes that slow your baby’s abilities around self feeding can be made.
Don’t let them get in the way of really raising a healthy eater down the road.
Why is Starting Solids a Challenge?
In a nutshell, the quick pace of food transitions your baby will make in the first year is the crux of most baby feeding mistakes.
In a period of 6 months, your baby will move from an all liquid diet to eating your family’s mealtime food.
That means the food transitions are fast.
Once you get used to one thing, it’s time to move on to the next.
For instance, you and your baby master pureed foods.
But, now your baby wants finger foods and seems unsatisfied with baby cereal.
Yes, the pace in the first year of life with food is quick.
Another challenge is the wide range of nutrients babies need in the first year.
Being mindful of these and fitting them all in can feel overwhelming.
If that isn’t enough to worry about, the repercussions of moving too slowly with food transitions can have its own set of ramifications.
For example, your baby may lose interest in infant rice cereal if they see it every day and at most meals.
Or, your baby may tire of exploring solid foods if she isn’t progressively challenged with new textures and flavors.
She may even prefer purees, baby food pouches, or get stuck on a liquid diet (hello, sippy cups of milk), if she isn’t challenged with more food flavors and textures.
If you’re like most parents I know, you want to get the baby food stages right.
From setting a reasonable baby feeding schedule to knowing when to start solids and make important baby food transitions, not only do you need to know what to do, you need to know what not to do, as well.
Signs You’re Hindering Self Feeding
If feeding your baby gives you a nagging feeling that things are getting off track or aren’t going as well as planned, you may be making some feeding mistakes.
Whether you need more information, or got the wrong advice, you may unknowingly be caught up in some very common mistakes.
If your baby isn’t gaining weight as predicted, is struggling with the spoon or baby led weaning, or if transitioning to a balanced meal plan isn’t going as well as you had hoped, you might be hindering your baby from moving forward with eating.
Unfortunately, these can interfere with your baby’s eating, development, and food learning.
4 Self Feeding Mistakes You’ll Want to Avoid
In my line of work, I see several mistakes parents make when feeding their kids.
It’s not that I look for snafus, it’s just that when parents are really struggling, they show up on my doorstep.
As a way to help you side-step some of these challenges, I’ve outlined the top four feeding mistakes I see parents make with their baby.
Some are related to the process of feeding, while others involve food selection.
Mistake # 1: Trying to Keep Baby Clean while Eating
In the quest to stay clean and tidy (and lessen the laundry load), you may be swiping your baby’s mouth with a washcloth after every bite, staying with spoon feeding (because it’s cleaner), or avoiding messy foods to cut down on the time and effort it takes to clean up after a meal.
Why is this a mistake?
It robs your baby of important learning experiences, such as exposure to different textures, smelling food completely and learning how to manipulate food using his hands and mouth.
Serious investigation happens during meal time, and there’s no better way to learn about food than to get down and dirty with it.
Those pictures you see of babies covered head to toe in yogurt, spaghetti sauce and cake?
Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Case in Point:
Long ago, I taught one of my clients to let her baby self feed with a spoon. I asked her to refrain from using the washcloth until the end of the meal, and charged her with the task of offering her daughter more food variety.
After implementing these interventions, both mom and baby started having a grand time with meals!
How to Keep Baby Clean While Eating
Use the kitchen sink as a back-up bathtub.
Stock it with towels, soap and plastic measuring spoons and cups so your baby can go from high chair to kitchen tub (with supervision, of course) for a quick clean up.
Get the Food & Nutrients for Baby’s Brain!
Mistake #2: Spoon-feeding Your Baby for Too Long
This ties into #1 as a way to keep a cap on the mess.
But also, there may be a misconception that babies need to be spoon-fed for a year.
Babies can begin the transition to chopped, table foods around 8 months of age.
And if you’re a follower of baby led weaning, you know that solids can be introduced at 6 months.
By one year, your baby should be eating table food. In other words, the food your family is eating.
You’ll just modify this into age-appropriate textures (shredded, chopped, etc), and encourage baby self feeding (with assistance as necessary).
Your baby should also be using an open-top cup with small amounts of liquid so that spills are minimal.
Of course, follow your baby’s developmental progress and cues for readiness to see when the time is right to transition to more textured finger foods.
If you’re testing solid foods with a baby led weaning approach, be sure to read about iron and baby led weaning in this post or grab my up-to-date, step-by-step book called The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids.
It includes advice for spoon-feeding, baby led weaning and guidance for using both to optimize nutrients and self-regulation of eating.
When to Stop Spoon Feeding Baby
Baby Ben was 14 months and still being spoon-fed.
He came to me because he wasn’t gaining weight and his length had fallen behind.
He was simply disinterested in the spoon—he wanted to feed himself, and he didn’t want mush anymore—he wanted the real food his family was eating.
Most babies will want to start self feeding between 6 and 8 months.
This usually coincides with the development of the pincer grasp.
While Ben’s mom was understandably afraid to give up spoon-feeding (because he wasn’t growing well and she wanted to be sure he ate enough), once she introduced table foods, gave him some independence, and let him eat to his own satisfaction, Ben started to thrive again.Most babies will want to start self feeding between 6 and 8 months. This usually coincides with the development of the pincer grasp. #startingsolids #selffeeding Click To Tweet
Mistake #3: Offering Foods that are Too Healthy
I believe all babies should receive real, natural, unadulterated foods of all flavors, with an emphasis on food introduction and lots of food variety and exposure.
But I see a trend in feeding babies that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
This can become a problem because babies have limited stomach capacity and these foods are filling.
When your baby’s tummy is full, there’s a risk of missing other important foods and nutrients such as choline and DHA.
Whole grains, fruits and veggies also tend to be low in fat, which is an important nutrient for babies and their brain growth.
Certainly babies need these healthy foods, but they also need meat (or non-meat substitutes such as beans), fortified cereal, healthy fats and dairy (or fortified non-dairy) sources.
In fact, if I had the opportunity to re-write the food introduction guidelines, I’d advise the following:
- Meat First (because it’s full of iron, zinc, B vitamins, choline and other nutrients important for brain development.)
- Vegetables (because these are a learned taste and flavor and need more time and exposure for acceptance.)
- A variety of iron-fortified whole grains, fruit, and dairy products (or non-dairy alternatives if necessary, introduced as yogurt and cheese or as a baked in ingredient. (Note: no liquid milk until one year of age.)
Of course, there’s eggs, fish, peanuts, and nut butters — the food allergens that need to be introduced before 12 months, too.
My stance on “which foods first” is based on nutrient priorities and your baby’s budding flavor palate.
Case in Point:
Josh, at 13 months, was eating a high fiber diet, filled with whole grain breads, lots of vegetables and fruits, and very little added fat.
In fact, his mom stated,
“I never thought to add fat to his meals—I thought that would be unhealthy.”
Josh’s diet appeared very healthy on paper, but in reality, it wasn’t meeting his nutritional needs.
For example, babies need 40-50% of their total calories in the first year from fat.
Josh certainly wasn’t getting this.
Once Josh’s mom understood that babies need a good amount of fat daily and where and how to get it, she was able to plan more appropriate meals for him.
The added benefit?
With fat, foods (especially vegetables) were tastier and he ate better.
Mom opened up to more variety (French toast, pancakes, sandwiches, etc—all cut up in bite-sized pieces) and Josh enjoyed eating again.
Mistake #4: Allowing Bites or Gulps of Adult Foods
Just a little sip of my coffee? Sure.
A bite of my brownie? Why not!
What’s the harm in a little sip of soda, a taste of coffee, or a bite of a brownie?
Nothing immediate, but over the long haul, you might find your little infant growing up to be a soda swigging, sweet tooth kid if you’re not careful.
It’s true—what we offer babies now influences their taste preferences later on.
Regarding sweets for babies, I suggest holding out until age two.
What about the one year birthday cake?
It’s ok because it’s not a “regular” offering.
Avoiding sugary foods early in life may help curb your baby’s sweet tooth.
She may kick the sweet preference into high gear later on, but you’ll have armed her with early exposure to healthier fare.
Remember I said those tummies are tiny?
They don’t give much leeway for sweets. I wouldn’t want you to sacrifice nutritious foods for them.
I also recommend holding off on caffeine, too.
Babies don’t need a stimulant (aren’t we mostly trying to calm them down?!), nor do toddlers or children for that matter.
There’s no place for caffeine in a child’s diet—so if you can manage to avoid it, bravo.
Try to limit them, especially for babies and young toddlers, even if “just one bite” seems harmless.
The dose relative to body weight is considerable.
I’ve searched and searched, and there’s no upside to offering artificial food colors to young children.
Move Forward with Self Feeding Wisdom
Of course, don’t beat yourself up if you’ve made any of the above baby self feeding mistakes.
Just take a step forward and make the adjustments you need to feed your baby well and with confidence.
That’s the fast path to encouraging self feeding and helping your baby move through his feeding and eating milestones.
Need More Help with Encouraging Self Feeding?
My book, The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids is a quick read that cuts through the fluff and gives you exactly what you need to know to feed your baby in the first year.
A baby feeding schedule, baby feeding chart, baby food stages, baby food chart, when to start solids and more!
Grab your copy today!
Don’t forget to check out our workshops, classes and guidebooks to help you raise nourished children, inside and out. And read, The Ultimate Guide to Baby’s Nutrition in the First Year.
This post was updated June 2023 from its original.
When to Stop Spoon Feeding Baby?
Realistically, kids eat from a spoon their whole lives! But, there is a time when your baby should be exploring food and self-feeding, whether it’s with their hands or using a spoon.
The key is in encouraging your baby’s independence. It’s okay to continue using a spoon as long as you’re not the one holding it. Encourage your babe to use the spoon independently.
My Baby Won’t Feed Himself Finger Foods
Sometimes babies are less interested in feeding themselves, especially when they’ve become used to mom or dad doing the heaving lifting.
The best way to help when your baby won’t feed himself finger foods is to be hands-off yourself. Offer foods at mealtime in age-appropriate shapes and sizes and let your baby explore these on his own.
You may have to show your baby how to pick up and hold finger foods, and model bringing food to mouth at first. If your baby’s disinterest stems from a sensitivity to the sensory aspects of food, then begin to engage your child with non-food sensory activities.
When Do Babies Feed Themselves?
Around 6 months of age, babies can begin to feed themselves, but you may have to model what this looks like for them.
Start with a dab of puree on your baby’s fingertip and guide the hand to their mouth. It won’t take much time before your little one learns to bring his hand to mouth on his own. You can use this same technique with a baby led approach, using strips or large pieces of food your baby can hold in their hand.
Always be present when your baby is self-feeding, so you can intervene if they put too much food in their mouths or need assistance.