If you are starting your baby on solids, you may be in for a big surprise: your baby may be ready to self-feed mush earlier than you expect. Most parents start their baby with thin finely ground purees or baby cereal, gradually thicken them, eventually introduce lumpy food and finally transition to finger foods the baby self-feeds. But the truth is that many babies may be willing to try self-feeding from as early as 6-7 months of age, very soon after the solids are introduced.
Self-feeding case study.
Here is my recent experience with one of the families I am working with. The mom is a great cook, preparing wonderful homemade baby food, diligently following mealtime structure and providing top-notch nutrition to her 8-month-old baby. The baby girl successfully graduated from thin purees to chunky purees and soups.
The main complaint: recently the baby lost interest in feeding and started fussing at mealtimes, stressing the mom and filling up on milk instead of enjoying solids. She did seem to enjoy eating with her fingers but her mom was not sure if it was age-appropriate and if she was able to get enough calories and nutrition this way.
Just let me do it myself!
I was lucky to get to observe a mealtime with the baby when I visited the family for assessment. The cute baby girl ate a few spoons of slightly mashed-up chicken soup but lost her interest very soon. The mother was very attuned to her baby, did not push the food when the baby lost interest in eating but she was concerned if the girl had enough.
So we decided to go for a little experiment and spooned some of the soup right on the tray. And then we both watched in awe the 8 months old baby enthusiastically picking the pieces of cooked chicken, carrots and noodles and happily transferring them into her mouth. She ate a bowl of chicken soup from her tray all by herself!
In my workshops and online classes, I encourage the parents to have no expectations when introducing solids and be prepared for all kinds of feeding scenarios. Here is an outline of some of the recommendations I make. I hope you will find them useful and look forward to hearing what worked for you with your baby!
1. Have an open mind. Every baby is different. Most need to follow the traditional puree-chunks-finger foods route but some babies want to self-feed from the very beginning. They will feed poorly unless allowed to eat independently. Or they go through the traditional sequence of texture upgrades within a few weeks and are ready and determined to self-feed at 7-8 months. Be guided by what your baby can do, not how old your baby is. As soon as the baby shows interest in self-feeding, allow her.
2. Pack up your suitcases for a trip. Timely texture upgrades will result in an early self-feeding and potentially broader diet. Studies here and here suggest a link between delayed progression from purees and a limited diet and feeding difficulties later in life.
Feeding expert Ellyn Satter in her brilliant book “Child of Mine” says: “Teaching your baby to eat solids is like taking a trip, and like many trips, it has a destination. ….by the end of this first year, your baby is likely to be sitting up at your family table finger-feeding himself pieces of soft finger food and drinking from a cup. From the beginning of the trip to the end, you will be in constant transition. If you get settled with any one approach to feeding, you are likely missing something. If you get in trouble during this time, it is likely because you are looking for a predictable timeline to guide you through the many transitions. No such guideline exists – your baby is the only one who knows”.
3. Let them practice. Encourage your baby to self-feed and use utensils as soon as you start solid foods. Some babies may not be interested in either until 10 months or older but others may actually jump on this opportunity.
I recommend giving babies some finger foods on a tray to allow them practice their motor skills at each meal. You can use baby cheerios, pieces of cooked fruit or vegetables like carrots or apples or soft raw fruit and vegetables like avocado, mango or cucumber cut in long strips.
4. Anticipate the mess. Self-feeding is rarely mess-free and it will not drive you crazy if you try to keep your baby and the floor clean. When my kids were starting to self-feed, I used to place their high chair on a large plastic mat, away from the walls, strip them to diapers and let them do whatever they needed to experience the food using all their senses. After the feeding, I would give them a quick rinse in a bathtub or kitchen sink.
In restaurants and friends’ homes, we used this super-bib with long arms that protected the clothes. By 12 months they were both self-feeding and starting to use utensils.
5. Do not stress about calories. As kids start mastering a new way of eating and a new food texture, it may take so much of their energy and concentration, that their food intake may go down. Do not worry about it. They still drink plenty of breast milk or formula to close the potential calorie gaps.
The worst mistake you can make is to regress to the familiar texture like purees or a secure way of feeding with a spoon, in the hope to get more food inside your baby. Babies need opportunities to learn and it is our job as parents to trust them to push themselves with eating and challenge them appropriately at mealtimes.
Your baby is unique.
So why copy how everyone else is starting solids? Welcome your baby into the wonderful world of food using this safe and responsive method.