Tips to stop hand-feeding a fussy eater
Hand-feeding a fussy eater eat beyond the baby years is common. In fact, feeding a child who is 3 or older is something parents frequently admit to and is something that may go on for years. Even spoon feeding much older children is not unusual.
If you are still feeding your child beyond the developmentally normal age for this then read on for strategies to help. Or, if you have a younger child and want to make sure you are not feeding them for longer than necessary, this will also be helpful.
Let’s look first at why it’s important for children to learn to self-feed.
Why children should feed themselves
1. Independence for them. Being able to self-feed is a normal part of development and is an important skill. Obviously as they get older it’s also a necessary part of socialising.
2. Independence for you. Not having to be a hands-on part of every meal frees us up to concentrate on our own food or younger siblings.
3. Fine motor skills. Learning to manipulate utensils and getting food to the mouth is important learning. It’s one of the reasons why I would recommend serving foods from a plate or bowl rather than from a pouch.
4. Food awareness. Learning to eat independently goes hand in hand with better understanding about food. Learning about textures, smells, temperatures all comes from exploration. To be able to do this from a young age helps to avoid some of the picky eating traps.
5. Eating competence. Being in control of food and intake gives our child control. They are more likely to learn to be an adventurous and confident eater who better understands appetite regulation if they are in charge of their own eating. They learn to trust themselves.
Why we may want to hand-feed
1. Mess. Teaching a child to self-feed is messy. They are likely to get it all over themselves, the chair, and the floor. For many parents this is one additional pressure and time suck. Feeding children is far cleaner then letting them do it themselves!
2. Time. Feeding a child is way quicker than letting them do it themselves. Especially if they are just learning or are a notoriously slow or distracted eater.
3. Eat better. Parents frequently feed a fussy eater as it’s easier to get them to accept certain foods. This is especially true if combined with distractions like a tablet.
Parents find they can shovel food into the child’s mouth that they are unlikely to otherwise eat. However, although this may be a short-term fix, it frequently leads to more of a skills gap later on for a child.
4. Underweight child. Frequently if a child is underweight (or we believe they are), we feel a need to feed them to ensure they get enough food. The extra mouthful or two can also make us feel so much better.
Unfortunately, this can also work against us as we can be inadvertently pressuring our child and making feeding more difficult. It can also cause conflict, control issues or battles.
Why a child may not be self-feeding
Establishing why a child is not self-feeding is an important step to rectifying the problem:
1. Aversions. Frequently children who are not eating widely and well have sensory sensitivities. These could make getting close to certain foods challenging.
2. Mess. They may also be nervous about getting messy – either because they don’t like the feeling on hands, face, or clothes. Or because we’ve inadvertently made mess something that is to be avoided.
3. Fear of food. Picky eaters can find certain foods quite challenging to contemplate. A child may not be wanting to eat because they are nervous about particular foods.
4. Delay/skill gap. A child may not have the skills or the capability to feed themselves easily. Many of these skills need to be learned over time so not having the practice may mean that they haven’t learned how or are physically unable to.
Older children may also be concerned about ‘getting it wrong’ or may not have been given enough opportunity to learn. Learning to feed yourself is a process.
5. Lazy/control/comfort/attention. Having a parent feed you is far easier than doing it yourself. Hey, if the offer is there! It can also be lovely and comforting to be babied, especially if there is a younger sibling in the picture getting lots of attention.
Being fed ensures a lot of attention. It also gives a child control over the meal. If they refuse they know a parent will step in.
It may be that other things are far more interesting than eating.
6. Bored. Being stuck on one food, or one type of food, like purees too long can lead to boredom in eating.
7. Missing milestones. Learning to eat is a process and if a child is not moving through stages at the time when it’s developmentally appropriate sometimes this can hinder eating competence.
For example, by the time a baby is one they should be able to comfortably manage the same foods as the rest of the family – albeit with perhaps some modified textures or levels of spice heat.
Helping a child self-feed
Remember this is a process and will take time, patience, calm and repetition. It’s also critical that we smile and have fun. Eating is about pleasure and our number one job is to make that true!
As it is a developmental process, even if you have an older child they still will work through the same steps, moving from hand to spoon to fork.
1. Opportunity. Learning any skill takes time and practice. Giving our child plenty of opportunities to do this is essential. It’s also important that we teach them how to do things:
i) At the table. Having meals and snacks at the table makes it easier to learn how to do things and have the opportunity to practice.
ii) Modelling. Watching us eat and use utensils is important. Children learn far more by watching us than from us telling them how to do something. Sharing food with them is also an important part of teaching eating competence.
2. Process. As it is a process then it does not have to be ‘all or nothing’. A gentle transition from us feeding, to them doing it is the best way to go.
i) Eating with hands. As this is the first step, giving our child plenty of opportunity to eat with their hands is important. If our child is reluctant then making it easier is helpful.
For example, having a napkin to wipe hands afterwards. Or cutting foods into cubes, which are easier to grab than flat shapes. Similarly, making foods more appealing, like fun shapes may help.
ii) Spoon feeding. Letting our child have a spoon at the same time as we feed them and encouraging them to take turns. Or letting them start and us finishing. A gentle transition from us doing all to them taking turns.
Perhaps this is us loading the spoon to make it easy.
Perhaps it’s us holding the spoon and putting their hand on top of ours.
Perhaps it’s a bowl each.
Sometimes working backwards is easier. Having the spoon in the mouth and gently moving our hand off and theirs more on. Then having the spoon just to the lips and moving through the same process.
We can also make it easier, with for example, foods that stick to the spoon rather than slide off to begin with.
Or perhaps the spoon has a negative connotation so starting by dipping a favourite toy into the food is a good first step.
iii) Fork feeding. A similar process can work for forks as spoons. Start by helping to spear food and gently move through stages.
3. Attention. Giving our child lots of attention but in different ways is essential, especially if hand feeding them is one of their main ways to get us to sit with them and lavish our time and energy on them.
Eating with them can often help with this. We are there and not going to be doing anything else, but not necessarily feeding them. Think of how much attention they get when we do hand-feed and replicate that for a while.
Perhaps that’s a game where we try to eat without hands or where we race to grab something with our eyes closed.
4. Mess is good. Embracing the mess is essential. It is a key step in the learning process. Children explore foods and get used to textures and tastes by being intimately involved.
We can avoid the mess being a problem by stripping them down to underclothes, using a giant bib or old cloth or putting a drop sheet or plastic down under the chair, for example.
5. Food challenges. If our child is hesitant to feed themselves as they are uncomfortable with new foods, it is critical that they are able to gently become more familiar and therefore more comfortable around those foods.
If our child has sensory sensitivities the same applies. The more we avoid textures/smells/tastes, the more sensitive we can become towards them.
Allowing our child to explore foods is important, but this may be away from the table to start with. Any time they are able to become involved in food is a great way to gradually build this comfort.
We may also need to scaffold progress. Perhaps touching a food is too much at the moment, but they can use a fork. Or maybe getting a sticky face is uncomfortable and so having a wash-cloth close is important.
Overall, it’s critical to be positive. If we are consistently speaking about how difficult it is for our child to eat for themselves, this does not promote eating competence. Conversely, giving positive and specific praise for steps forward is important and helpful.
If you do have a child who is not feeding themselves, beginning work on the gradual process to transition to independence is definitely worth it.
If you know a parent who would benefit from this article, please share.
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/