Your toddler's journey into self-feeding starts with the introduction of finger foods and will eventually progress to using a spoon and other utensils. Some parents are reluctant to introduce a spoon or fork because it can be such a messy affair. There are ways, however, to minimize this mess and allow your child to develop independent self-feeding skills.
Before You Introduce the Spoon
All children develop on their own unique time line so there is no set time to introduce the spoon. Not only will your child's motor skills and interest play a part, but so will other factors like how long your child has been eating solids and when you introduced finger foods.
If you've been feeding your child very soft foods or pureed baby foods without introducing finger foods, then your child is probably not quite ready for the spoon quite yet. Start offering foods like cereal Os and well-cooked vegetables so that your child can begin the process of moving food to mouth first with her hands first.
If the majority of the food you are feeding your child is still pureed, it's time to move on to more chunky fare. At 12 months, your toddler is quite capable of handling hunks of fruits, veggies and pasta as long as the pieces aren't too large and providing they're cooked adequately. They should be soft but not completely mushy.
Signs Your Toddler Might Be Ready for a SpoonAgain, each child is different, but most children will be ready to start using a spoon around the first birthday. It could be a few months earlier or later, though, so watch for signs.
When your toddler was a baby, you probably knew she was full because after she'd consumed a fair amount of food, she'd turn her head and clamp her mouth shut. Now that your child is a toddler, she might be doing the same thing at the beginning of a meal. She might seem disinterested in eating or may even throw a tantrum when it's time to go into the high chair. She might try grabbing the spoon from your hand as you try to feed her. These can all be signs that your child is ready to be more independent and feed herself.
Pick the Right Tool for the Job
If your silverware isn't too heavy and your forks aren't too sharp, by all means, use what you have. There is no rule that says that you must buy all new feeding supplies for this stage. It can, however, make learning a little easier if the utensils are sized and shaped for toddler hands.
When buying new utensils, look for those that have chubby handles and blunted fork tips. Also make sure that all are free from Bisphenol A. Manufacturers are getting pretty good at labeling items as BPA-free these days, so look for the label.
The best utensil to introduce first is the spoon. It's not too sharp so it's more forgiving. A spoon to the eye or nose is way better than the fork. When working with the spoon at first, offer your child things that are likely to glob on to the spoon and stay there until she gets it into her mouth. At first, you might need to let her give it a few tries and if she's having a hard time, load the spoon up for her but then hand it right back.
Some good firsts to try with a spoon:
- thick yogurt
- thick applesauce
- mashed potatoes
- mashed sweet potatoes
- brown rice
- cottage cheese
- mashed peas and carrots
- refried beans
- pasta dishes with thick sauces and small noodles
- mashed egg yolks or scrambled eggs
Once she's gotten the hang of the spoon a bit, you can introduce a fork. Demonstrate the stabbing or poking action of the fork for her and then let her give it a try. It may take a while before she differentiates between fork and spoon and makes good use of the fork.
Some good firsts to try with a fork:
- potato chunks
- sweet potato chunks
- green beans
- pasta shells
- melon chunks
- toast squares with melted cheese or a thin layer of peanut butter (the stickiness of both help the fork stay put)
- pizza squares
- butternut squash chunks
- pieces of fruits like apples, pears and peaches
The key here is to make sure that foods are soft enough to prevent choking but are still firm enough that the food won't slide off the fork tines after it's been pierced. The size of the food should also not be large enough for choking but should be big enough to make a good target for your toddler's unsteady hand.
How to Minimize Mess and Maximize Success
Meals will take longer and they will be messier. It's best to go in with that expectation (and a heavy dose of patience) rather than spend an inordinate amount of time pleading with your child to be less messy or try to eat faster. Go ahead and plan for longer meal times. Take steps to reinforce the area around the high chair with a towel, sheet or mat that can be easily picked up and thrown in the washer after a shake over the sink. Definitely dress your toddler appropriately for the task at hand. Best would be no clothes at all (except a diaper) so you can clean up with just a washcloth afterward. Other options include no clothes or regular clothes with a big bib over them or using some old T-shirts just for eating that can be thrown right into the laundry.
Again, start looking for sings around 12 months and even if your child doesn't seem interested, try letting her have a spoon once in a while to see how things go. Once she's been using utensils for a few months (around 18 months), she'll be quite good at it and you can introduce more fun and challenging foods like soups and longer noodles.