Teaching your toddler to feed himself

In the article on weaning your baby I suggested that from 10 months onwards, you could start offering other types of food to your baby but they must be cut up finely so that baby will not choke. By the time your baby is 1 year old he should be taking a variety of food so it would be easy to progress to eating adult food. By now he should have enough teeth to chew his food and if you have been sitting him at the dinner table during meal times he should have learnt from watching you, how to chew his food.

A few pointers to remember when feeding your toddler

• Never leave your toddler alone to feed himself. This is because most children will put all the food they see into their mouth which could cause choking or vomiting.
• Always check that your child has swallowed the food before offering the next mouthful. You can do this by asking your child to open his mouth. This applies even when he is able to feed himself.
• Finger food should be soft and easy to chew or dissolve in the mouth. Do not give big chunks or sticks of food for them to bite off until they are 2 years old. If they accidentally bite off a biggish piece it could cause choking or the food could slip into the airways and get lodged in the lungs which may require surgery to remove it. Believe me; I have seen many cases where children lose a bit of their lungs because of care takers’ negligence.
• Never give infants or young children iced or refrigerated foods or liquids, because the coldness can damage the stomach and intestines, inhibiting the capacity to digest, assimilate, and eliminate. Liquids and soft cooked foods served warm or at room temperature are the most desirable and beneficial, especially when children are sick.
• Never give children cold drinks with their meals because the stomach should be warm to best digest the food and cold drinks will dampen the ‘fire’ needed to break down food.
• Do not give them fizzy drinks as this causes too much gas in the stomach. Did you know that you can use coke to remove stubborn stains in your toilet bowl? Imagine what it will do to your baby’s stomach if you let them drink coke!
• Never feed your child in front of the television. Children eat better when they have company so let your child eat with you.
• Never make horrible faces if you do not like the food that you see. Everything should be yummy.

All children go through phases of different eating styles.

The ferocious eating phase
This is the best phase when the child just loves eating everything that he sees. He would practically wolf everything down quick as a flash.

The keep the food in the mouth phase
This is when the child takes food into his mouth and just leaves it there without chewing or swallowing it. When he is satisfied that it has been there long enough, he will then chew and swallow it. It can take up to 1 hour to finish the meal which can be taxing if you are the impatient type of person. The possible reasons could be the child is not hungry enough or he is bored with the food, had too many snacks in between meals or he is testing your ingenuity on how to get him to eat.

The choosy phase
This is when the child decides he does not want to eat certain food. It is quite normal if your child suddenly refuses to eat a certain food that he used to enjoy, so just give him alternatives. Once the child is old enough I always ask them what they want to eat especially for breakfast. The other thing that I do is play on their vanity if I think that they should eat the food offered. I always tell them what food group the food is; for example vegetables contain Vitamin C and eating this will make their skin beautiful, eating proteins will give them strong muscles (show your strong biceps), eating vitamin A will make their eyesight strong etc. If they question me on why my skin is not smooth and beautiful, I always tell them it is because I was naughty and did not eat vegetables when I was young. They always believe me and finish everything on the plate.

The ‘I don’t want to eat’ phase
This is very common if they have just recovered from an illness and do not have any appetite. Let your child choose what he likes but make sure that the food is nutritious and not junk food. Make sure you do not have lots of junk food in the house and they will be able to make do with what you have. It could be a piece of cheese or a couple of biscuits instead of rice.

Now let us look at how to start teaching your child to feed himself.

It is best to first teach your toddler to eat using his fingers because he has been practicing putting things into his mouth since he was 2 – 3 months old. Use foods that are dry and easy to pick up, like bread and biscuits. Show your child how to pick up food using his thumb and first finger and let him practice as often as possible.

The next stage is to teach him how to use a fork. I like to start with a plastic fork as it is lighter and easier to handle. Now you can use cut up fruits and vegetables as these are easier to prod with the fork.

Once he has mastered using the fork it is time to learn how to use a spoon. It is better to start with a teaspoon which is lighter. Initially, he will not be able to balance the food on the spoon and will tip the food off the spoon but be patient. Once he has mastered the skill of feeding himself he will not want you to feed him anymore so let him be independent.

Cooking tips
• Remove your child’s portion before you add salt or reduce the amount of salt for the whole family
• Do not use monosodium glutamate in the food
• Add a little extra water when cooking rice so that it is slightly softer
• Use smaller fish because it has less methyl-mercury

From bottle to cup

Regardless of what other people say, I strongly believe that children should drink water starting from infancy. In our country, children tend to lose fluids through invisible loss and the drying effects of air-conditioners. If they have a fever or they are ‘heaty’ they will need slightly more to keep the internal system cool. If the children start drinking water early, once they grow older, they will not have problems drinking water. In fact you cannot find sweet fizzy drinks in my house. If the weather is very hot everybody has to drink extra water. The other drink which I encourage is barley with winter melon strips instead of sugar.

All the babies below 6 months must drink at least 60 mls of water per day. Normally I give a little after their milk feed to keep the mouth clean and the balance when they wake up from their sleep when the mouth may be a bit dry.

After 6 months they need to drink about 150 – 200 mls per day. If they refuse to drink from the bottle, I will spoon feed them

From 12 months onwards I like to give them water from a straw cup as there is no spillage.

From 18 months they learn to drink directly from the cup. I start by giving them an empty cup to practice putting to the mouth and once they have mastered the technique, I put a little water into the cup and slowly increase the amount.

I like the western concept of allowing children to feed themselves from an early age. Most Chinese families do not allow the children to feed themselves until they are 4 – 5 years old because it is messy. What is a little mess to clean up compared to the joy of achievement on your child’s face when he actually manages to eat by himself. When Marie started primary school I happened to pop into the school canteen during recess to pay the canteen fees and I was absolutely horrified to see several grandmas and maids sitting there feeding the 7 year old children because they did not know how to feed themselves.

I hope that you are like me in wanting your child to learn how to be self reliant from an early age.

Copyright (c) 2007 Cecilia Koh