Around this time in a child’s life, several aspects of development ‘come together’ and mean that toddlers want to do many more things independently. Feeding themselves may be one of them.
Independence and skills
They have a growing sense of personal autonomy as they realise they’re separate from their parents, and they want to decide things for themselves. Their fine (small muscle) motor skills are maturing, and they can pick up food and put it in their mouth without help.
Making up their own mind about eating
Their appetite may decrease as their growth slows a little, and they’re interested in the things in the environment that they can access (like food). With their increasing sense of self-determination, they may resist or refuse food at times.
SKIP Whakatipu booklet Te Pihinga 3 (page 6), says this is a good time to start guiding babies to feed themselves: ‘We have started to give her finger foods. She loves the chance to feed herself.’
Developing a healthy attitude to food
Parents face some new challenges with ensuring their independent, self-feeding toddler is getting enough to eat. Encourage whānau to avoid turning meal times into a battle zone, with mum and dad resorting to threats or treats to get their toddler to eat.
Adults can’t force a child to eat, and it’s better not to try. Children will learn to recognise when they’ve had enough — this is important for them to develop a healthy attitude towards food and to understand what it’s like to feel full.
All children — just like adults — will have personal preferences for certain foods, and that is to be expected.
Offer only healthy food choices
The trick for parents is to offer their toddler a range of healthy foods to eat. If only healthy food is offered to a child, that’s what they’ll eat. A toddler’s job is to choose which food to eat and how much. When they stop eating or are throwing food on the floor intentionally, that’s a sign they’ve probably had enough.
Consider removing what’s been rejected and offering a different piece of food from their plate. If that’s rejected, the child has likely eaten enough. Parents should calmly remove their child’s plate and could even say, ‘You look like you’ve had enough’, giving them the clear message that mealtime is over.
Strategies to cope with the mess
Toddlers who are learning to feed themselves will make a mess, and some parents would rather avoid this. However, feeding yourself is a skill all humans learn. Help whānau to see this as a developmental milestone to be celebrated, rather than avoided because it’s a messy one.
Suggest strategies for making clean-up easier. Contain spills by spreading an old bed sheet underneath the eating area. Floor coverings will be protected, and the sheet can be shaken outside and washed when necessary. Newspaper is a good alternative, and can be thrown out at the end of mealtime.
Sharing mealtimes together
Mealtimes are a chance for the family to be together. When everyone eats the same thing at the same time, it helps a toddler learn that eating is a family-focused routine, rather than something that happens ‘to them’.
Some children may want to use a spoon, and they might still need some help. Many parents find that giving their child a spoon and having a spoon themselves to feed their child with is a way of making sure the child gets food — while happily learning to manage the spoon.
When children approach 2 years old, parents can offer a range of finger foods, a little at a time, until their child shows they’ve had enough. Leftover food can be covered and stored in a container in the fridge, and offered again later.
Hungry? Or something else?
Understanding their child’s hunger cues can help parents determine if their child needs food, or instead may need comfort or sleep.
With New Zealand childhood obesity rates ever increasing, it’s important that parents don’t get into the habit of offering food as a strategy for distraction or comfort. Their time and attention is much better for kids than second helpings or treats.
HealthEd website: Eating for healthy babies and toddlers. Download the PDF or order a free copy.
Well Child Tamariki Ora: My health book - Download the PDF or order a free copy
Advice for fussy eaters