Many parents who follow Feeding Littles utilize the concept of Baby-led Weaning (BLW), which means that babies feed themselves whole foods from the start. (Don’t worry – it doesn’t mean that baby weans early from the breast or bottle – the term weaning is the European use of the word, meaning introduction of solid foods.)
With BLW, parents don’t spoon food into a baby’s mouth. While this approach can be great for many families, it doesn’t fit everyone, and many parents choose the “Traditional Weaning/Feeding” (TW) route where babies are spoon fed purees and gradually eat other textures, building up to self-feeding all foods. The goal of either approach is for a baby to learn how to eat all safe textures; BLW babies get there faster, but TW works well for many families too.
With spoon-feeding, parents are sometimes coached on what to feed baby and how much to offer, but nobody tells them how to actually do it. Turns out, most of us don’t do it correctly from a developmental and motor perspective. Since Feeding Littles supports all ways of feeding babies (as long as they’re fed!), we want to give you some pointers on how best to spoon feed a baby. Even if you plan to do BLW, keep reading – these tips apply to feeding kids in general, and some of these concepts may be completely new to you!
Remember: we share this information to educate and help you have your best feeding experience possible. We never intend to offend or shame anyone into thinking they have “done it all wrong” – we simply want to provide information that most people don’t learn anywhere else. In the end – your child, your choice. Do what’s best for your family.
#1: Starting too early - remember, "solids" refers to anything but breast milk or formula.
Parents hear that most governing bodies, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, recommend waiting until around 6 months to start solid foods. Some interpret this to mean that purees should be started earlier and whole, more “solid” foods can start at 6 months. This 6 month recommendation is meant to apply to all “complementary foods,” which means anything but breast milk or formula, not just food that is in whole form. Your baby’s baby’s gut and immune system are more ready for food around 6 months and when baby is showing readiness signs – see below. For some babies, this is earlier than 6 months, and for others it’s later. We don’t recommend starting much later than 7 months for allergen exposure reasons. From an Occupational Therapist’s perspective, additional cognitive signs are important to watch for when assessing readiness for any food. Before starting spoon-feeding (or any complementary food feeding), make sure to ask yourself these questions:
- Can my child sit with minimal assistance on the floor? As in, when I put them on the floor do they topple over right away, or can they stay there for a bit – even if they’re wobbly? (This usually happens around 6 months.)
- Does my child bring their hand or safe toys to their mouth?
- Are they interested in food?
- Has the tongue thrust reflex disappeared, or are they still pushing out everything with their tongue? (We expect this to minimize before 6 months.)
Here are some additional things Judy looks for when evaluating whether her clients are ready for solids:
- When you are eating in front of your baby are they reaching to get your utensil from your hand?
- Can your baby follow a slow-moving object with their eyes? For example, can they watch a slow moving spoon come toward their mouth? (A spoon flying quickly and in an unpredictable pattern like “here comes the airplane” may be too hard for them to track!)
- Does your baby recognize the breast or bottle at first sight?
- Does your baby pat the breast or bottle during feedings?
- When placed into a high chair, does your baby lean in toward the food? Can they tilt forward to grab something?
Starting food too soon may not only cause digestive upset (including constipation!), but for some babies it can be a negative experience when they’re truly not ready. Watch your baby and look for these cues that they’re ready for food!
#2 Force feeding, holding down baby's hands, and tricking baby to eat.
As parents we have a lot of things to accomplish on any given day. Sometimes feeding seems to be just another item on our endless to-do list. Try to remember that your child’s feeding journey is important in establishing great feeding dynamics into adulthood. We want our kids to know how to eat when they’re hungry, stop eating when they’re full, and fill their tummies with foods that help them feel their best. That process starts the moment your child is born, as you learn your baby’s hunger and fullness cues. It intensifies as you begin your solid food journey. Below are a few tips to help you honor your baby’s cues and help them listen to what their body – not the clock or an external rule – has to say:
- Babies who are too tired, hungry, or overstimulated will probably not enjoy the eating process. Wait until baby is in a better state emotionally to offer food.
- Let your baby guide the spoon-feeding process. Never trick a baby into opening her mouth or slide the spoon into their mouth without them realize what’s happening. This may cause feeding aversions and fear of the eating experience, and it takes the control over what goes in their mouth away from your baby. (Judy and I have worked with kiddos who are fearful of mealtime for this reason alone.)
- Stay engaged in the feeding process – try not to be a passive participant. We recommend removing devices from the table.
- Go slowly so baby can manipulate the food in her mouth and feel their body’s signs of fullness. Don’t be surprised if they don’t like a food right away or seems startled by the texture. Honor their cues if they’re refusing a food, and don’t give up offering that food another time. It may take 20-30 exposures for them to enjoy it. Forcing them to eat it will make it worse.
- Feed baby until they indicate that they’re full. Conversely, never force them to finish the last few bites of food in the bowl or jar – when they’re done, they’re done. We don’t want them to learn how to overeat.
- Never hold a baby’s hands down as they’re trying to grab for the spoon. Their desire to hold the spoon and do it themself is a fantastic developmental step that we celebrate!
When spoon feeding, most of us put the spoon toward the top of a baby’s mouth and then scrape the food off the top lip or hard palate so it’s comes off the spoon. Watch this video for an example of what this looks like, and notice how baby is also being fed quickly and without much time to open his mouth or respond to the spoon. See how he leans away and looks a little overwhelmed:
Furthermore, as baby gets messy and their face becomes covered in food, we usually like to scrape it off with the spoon. Here is an example of face scraping:
Depositing food at the top of a baby’s mouth makes them an inactive member of the feeding process and doesn’t teach them where food should go when they eventually bring it to their mouth herself. We want babies to be an active participant in the experience!
Face scraping seems practical, but it can be uncomfortable for babies. Plus, we want them to be A-OK with food remaining on their face as they eat. As they get older, if they can’t handle some food on their face it will make it difficult for them to eat foods like a sandwich or a big watermelon slice.
Here are some tips for spoon-feeding without the scrape:
- Hold the spoon 12 inches in front of your baby’s face and let them notice the spoon and open their mouth. Remember, if they’re uninterested or distracted, don’t slip in the spoon while they’re not looking.
- Guide the spoon toward the back corners of her mouth, not their top lip or hard palate.
- Pull the spoon straight out instead of scraping it against their lip. This lets your baby remove the food from the spoon themselves!
- If baby starts reaching for the spoon, great! Let them guide it to their own mouth and get messy.
- It’s OK if baby has food on their face – work on cleaning it gently after the meal is over. It’s important for babies to get messy and to touch food with their skin.
#4 Staying on purees for too long.
Pureed food is a great option for families who feel uncomfortable starting with finger foods. However, if a baby isn’t introduced to other textures relatively quickly, they can struggle to graduate off of purees. One study suggests that if babies aren’t fed lumpy foods by 9 months, their risk of feeding difficulty later in life might increase. Babies aren’t meant to be on pureed food for life – the goal for all babies is to eventually chew real food.
Once you feel confident in your baby’s eating abilities with purees, play around with lumpier foods like mashed fruit or veggies, soft finger foods like cooked green beans, or ground meat. Spoon-feeding pureed food should be a short stage in your baby’s eating experience. Your baby won’t be able to pick up small pieces of food until they have their pincer grasp, but they can get longer, strip-shaped foods starting at 6 months.
Side note: keep in mind that baby food pouches are still pureed food, and they don’t offer a sensory experience for the eater like chewing real food. However, for many families they can have a place. If you want to use pouches, make sure that your baby is also exposed to those foods in their whole form.
#5 Spoon or hand-feeding your toddler.
Barring developmental or medical challenges, most toddlers should self feed without being hand or spoon fed by a parent by 12-14 months. Some parents of older toddlers hand-feed them regularly in order to “get them to eat,” and we completely understand the fear behind trusting that your child will, in fact, eat when they’re hungry. However, keep this in mind: hand-feeding toddlers doesn’t allow them to decide how much to eat and can start to interfere with their hunger and fullness cues. It also prevents your toddler from practicing age-appropriate feeding skills. if they’re not feeding themselves, barring medical or developmental issues, they might be missing out on sensory and motor-development experiences. If you need strategies to help with your picky toddler, check out our online Toddler & Kid course.
When spoon-feeding an infant who starts to grab for the spoon, instead of getting frustrated, try to celebrate this huge developmental milestone! Your baby is showing you that they want to start feeding themself – remember, that’s the goal! Check out this video of a parent appropriately responding to her baby’s desire to self-feed:
In this next video, watch how mom hands baby a loaded NumNum GOOtensil, which is designed to encourage babies to self feed. The center of the GOOtensil is hollow and allows purees or other smooth textures to be captured without worrying about which side of the utensil is “up,” and the handle is short – perfect for baby’s hands.
Need more help feeding your baby? Check out our online Infant Course, and get practical, professional help letting your baby learn to feed themself!