Encouraging independent feeding

12:13 PM

A little while ago, one of my regular reader asked me if I could write about toddlers eating and encouraging self feeding without distraction. This is one of these cultural difference between Indian and Switzerland that I have noticed for a long time.

In a lot of Western countries, we tend to encourage small children to eat on their own at an early age, and insist on meals being a ritual devoid of distractions. You won't find a lot of parents advising you to put your kiddos in front of TV or giving them toys to distract them from the process of eating where I come from. But the distraction method is used a lot here, and I had many moms telling me I should feed Ishita that way because she appeared a bit skinny to them. It seems however that the health care specialists are agreeing with me here and the need of the hour is to unglue kids from the TV while they eat.

So how does one encourage a child to eat independently and without distraction? First, we start this process very early, often the instant the baby start grabbing the spoon. This is usually around the age of 7 months that this stage occur, and this is the easiest time to start the process. At this age solid has just been introduced, most of a baby's nutrient still come from breast milk or formula, solid is introduced more to introduce new tastes and texture, and it is ok if they don't eat a ton. Some weaning techniques that are also starting to be popular consist of letting the baby decide when they are ready for solids and let them put food in their mouth from the start. The technique is called "baby led weaning" and advocates skipping the purée stage and move straight to soft cubes of steamed veggies the child can manipulate on their own and gum easily with a near toothless mouth. I myself started with purses when she was 5 months old because she was eager to try food, and the instant she perfected her hand eye coordination and put things in her mouth, switched to the baby led weaning tips.
My daughter started wanting to feed herself when she was 7 months old, by 8 months she only wanted chunky food, here she is eating broccoli and paneer strips on her own.

In this picture above she was 8 months old and had only two teeth, as you can see she had no problem chomping strips of paneer and steamed brooch florets. Also notice the high chair, this is one of these tool that are so common in the west, and encourage table manners. The chair is put at the dinning table, and the food is put on the tray for them to crab on their own. Parents usually eat at the same time and supervise, the child pick up the process through the "observe and imitate" technique that is the most natural and used by babies to pick up all their basic skills. Most of my Indian friends have asked me about the messy aspect of letting a child feed themselves. And, I always tell them that it is part of the learning process. If you are concerned about the cleaning afterward, put your child in easy to wash clothes ( or in my case, just a diaper), and keep a drop cloth or old towel under the chair. Letting babies have a go at feeding themselves is natural, and also help them develop essential motor skills and hand eye coordination (no you don't need toys to teach these). By trying to feed themselves and trying to imitate their parents, babies make a lot of brain connections, so let them be, the neurological connections they make early will give them a head start later in life.

Another thing my Indian friends are always worried about is the food quantity, and the fear the baby will never have enough. I'll tell you what my pediatrician said: "No babies starve themselves". In a word they eat when they are hungry, stop when they are full. The problem is that parents are afraid what a baby consider to be enough is not sufficient, and fail to recognize the cues that junior is indeed no longer hungry. A baby turning their head away, pushing the plate away, throwing food on the ground or spitting purée out are not signs you should switch on the TV or bring toys to the table. They are truly sign of the baby being FULL, by distracting a child to feed them, you inhibit the part of the brain controlling the hunger signal, they are so distracted they don't notice they are full, and this leads to over eating. Babies need smaller, more frequent meals, and before the age of 1 nutrient still come from the milk, the next year is the actual weaning part where gradually the solid food becomes the principal way to get nutrients, by age 2 milk is no longer needed and should no longer be considered a food in itself, but a snack or a small supplement. Typically the toddler continues to be on a 4-5 meal a day plan, so do not feel they have to eat giant portions 3 times a day. Also what parents tend to worry about is the weight, and the disappearance of the baby fat. Again this is normal, a toddler will be active and on the go, muscles grow and limbs get more definition as they grow. My pediatrician again told me that weight is less of an issue than one might think if the toddler still poops regularly, sleeps 10-12 hours a day and is active the rest of the day and the height increase regularly.

After the age of one a baby can also eat pretty much all the same food a grown up does, with modification of taste in some cases, and definitely smaller cuts and food prepped for them to handle on their own.
By 19 months my daughter could feed herself dal and chapati without help.

In this picture above, Ishita was 19 months old. As you can see the menu that day was aloo methi and dal with chapatti. What I did was cook smaller chapati for her, so she could handle them better, I did so by using a cookie cutter, each roti was bite sized, because at this age they can't really tear a whole roti apart well enough to eat. Notice she was also still making a mess with the dal then, but this is why these high chairs are all plastic and easily wipeable. She was once again eating at the dinning table with us, away from any screen and distraction. I still remember that this day she was hungry enough to ask for a second serving of dal, which she ate with a spoon once she ran out of baby roti.

One thing that many of my friend with older kids find taxing is the fact that last the age of two, most toddler rebel against certain food and turn into fussy eaters. Again, that is NORMAL, this is a sign of right development, toddlers start assessing who they are as a person and what power and influence they can have. Their job is to throw tantrums to test their boundaries, while a parent's job is to set said boundaries and stick to their guns. This is the stage at which parents should refrain from being emotional about food. Again, no child will starve themselves to death, but if they ever find out that going on a hunger strike freaks you out and end up with them getting what they want, they will continue using that tactic as they grow. If your child rebel against broccoli and attempt to fast to see if they can get maggi noodles instead, do not give in. Take the food away, I form them there will be no snacks until the next meal and leave it at that. I can guarantee you that they will be hungry enough at the next meal to eat what is put on their plate.

If you have been using the TV or tablet to feed your toddler and wonder how to quit and encourage healthier habits. The best way to do it is cold turkey.

Just stop it!

Let them beg and fuss and throw a fit and tell them firmly that meal time is a serious thing and shall be spent focusing on what is in the plate and to the people around them. They will likely protest and boycott food for a meal or two, but if you stand your ground and stay firm they will learn that screen time while eating is a no go.
If they eat less than they used to now that TV is off, it is that they had their share. It is up to you parent to know that you idea of a serving size differs from what their body actually needs at that time. The reason they were eating while in front of the TV was not that the TV made them hungrier, but that the screen stimulation disturbed the communication line between the stomach and the brain. Eating in front of the TV has been the object of several scientific research, and is now proven to be a link to obesity.

To increase the nutrition in a toddlers diet, offer more snacks in the form of fresh fruits, whole grain and protein items like cube of cheese, which not only are all better than cookies, but also introduce new tastes and texture.

All in all, the earliest you start with independent eating, the better. also remember that with children starting playschool as early as age two, they need to have some basic self feeding skills. Teachers can't spoon feed 15 children in the 20 minutes that tiffin time usually takes in school.

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  1. Krishanu2:37 AM

    Couldn't agree more on the "right" way to start off babies learning to eat. The high chair it is! And the comment about "no babies starve themselves"! So many Indian parents just blindly ignore this paradigm and cram their children up, often leading to the children being put off by food.

  2. I have seen a lot of babies and toddlers being fed "ninja attack" style at the play ground, from behind, while they were playing with something. I really think that food eating should be an activity done in its own time. Not in a sneaky way when one has no chance to notice curd rice is going down their throat. Food at my place is not allowed to leave the table

  3. Alexandra Madhavan11:37 AM

    Great post. I can really relate...
    We started Maya on solids at the age of 4 months and right from the start I have been adamant about her being a neat eater. Now at 22 months, even if a rice grain falls, she will put it back in her plate and she wipes her mouth with her napkin too. My MIL jokes that she eats like Queen Elizabeth, she loves it!
    One of the things I have clashed with my hubby in terms of child-rearing is feeding. But I let him do it his way and I do it my way. He likes to feed her with his hands and mash the curry with the rice into little egg shaped balls - total South Indian thing!
    I prefer to let her eat independently with a fork and spoon and she is more than distracted enough, just enjoying her meal, there is no need for a tablet. I notice she eats more if we all sit down as a family and eat together. But overall, toddler don't eat much, and they let us know when they are hungry anyways.
    A lot of our Indian cousin's kids are extremely fussy eaters. I don't know why. I think because their parents are like helicopters over them when they are eating and they pick up on the nervous energy.

  4. I think kids will pick up a lot in matter of emotions and energy, if they sense their parents are worried about how much they should eat, they will know in time how to exploit that feeling to their advantage, and pretend to be fussy eaters simply because they know if they play it long enough they will get a substitute they like better.

  5. Susan7:44 AM

    I really like this post. I agree that no child will starve himself, that he will eat when he is hungry. I wish I had pushed my sons (now 13 and almost 16) to eat a more varied diet when they were toddlers. They are finally eating more vegetables. Their dad has always acted like a short order cook, despite my protests and some nights he was cooking two or three different meals at once. I have never seen the ninja style feeding, but it sounds horrible! Independence in kids is a great thing, and it carries into taking care of oneself, getting up for school, cleaning room, etc. we don't do our kids a favor when we baby them and do too much for them. Great post!!

  6. Thank you. DH has on occasion suggested I cook whatever Ishita was asking for, but when I told him it was the recipe for creating a fussy eater later in life he saw my point. Due to his long hours at work I am on meal duty all the time, and I refuse to turn into a short order cook. The policy in my house is that what is landing on your plate is the only thing that you are going to get, eat it or leave it. Just yesterday she fussed at lunch because tacos were not to her fancy, but wanted crackers and cheese, she learned once more it was a no go, ate some of her taco and ended up having to wait until snack time to get an apple, and by dinner she was hungry enough to eat again.

  7. apple8:14 PM

    I think that India always had joint families so children were pampered. If the child does not eat from the mother, then there is always the grand mother, grand father, aunts etc., Our child rearing habits are from the past when lot of help was at hand. Now, with nuclear families, we are still unwittingly following the same practices with little help. It was not so in west, were there was no joint families and women started working at the turn of the century. Thus, the need arose to make children more independent. I don't know but it may be the case. I admire western parents for bringing up their children on their own with little help from grand parents. This is also something which I came across in these blogs. Though I don't approve of infants sleeping in separate rooms. Kind of cruel I think. You are not going to get any sleep anyway irrespective of where the child sleeps. Though I am all for making a child independent as far as eating is concerned.

    Talking about food, did Ishita had her Annaprashan Ceremony (Grain eating ceremony)??. In our community it takes places at four months for girls and at six months for boys. People gather to give gifts to the child and the child's maternal uncle (Mama) feeds the child its first morsel of solid food (rice, dal etc.). Solid food is given only after this ceremony. East Indians and south Indians have it. I don't know whether U.P. people have it. Being Hindu, we follow the same practices all over the country. What about baby naming ceremony. Did you have it??Pardon me, toddlers food eating habits kind of triggered my curiosity. Hope you don't get offended.

  8. Joint families in Europe were still common in rural areas until World War One, after that things changed drastically with men being sent to war, and women having to fill in in factories and office jobs to keep the country going, and with it went the necessity to take care of small children alone too.
    Ishita didn't have the grain ceremony or the naming ceremony, not sure if they are done in UP or not, but seems that DH's family simply don't observe these traditions. Ishita was extremely exited at the sight of food when she was 4 months old, and I started letting her taste some when she was almost 5 months old, I went by the Swiss practice of doing apple sauce ( boiled and mashed apples) because grains are not recommended until 6-7 months of age, so until she hit that time I introduced puréed vegetables and fruits instead.

  9. Anilú7:41 PM

    Hi, I was wondering if you have introduced chilies? My son is 2.5 and can't eat anything hot yet

  10. She started eating whatever we were eating at about 12 months, so there was some spice in the dal, but DH doesn't like spicy food much, so we never really put that much chili powder in the food and never use green chilies. She is now almost 5 and doesn't like when food is too spicy either.

  11. Navya2:01 PM

    Hi Cyn, this post is extremely helpful. I wish I had read this a year ago.. I am making small changes to my son's diet here and there. I have introduced some strips of paneer (inspired by the pic above), cut and boiled carrots and raisins - just finger foods that would help him navigate food into his mouth.. Also, I am realizing the importance of making kids learn to be independent when it comes to cooking.. I still have a long way to go because I am still dependent on my mobile for some meals for distraction :) But if he is really hungry, he will drink/ eat without the need for a baby app... As you said - no kid will starve.

    also - Ishi is really cute :)

  12. Thank you,
    Quit the baby app, as you said if he is hungry he eats without, if he is not interested in eating that means he is not hungry enough and he doesn't need to eat at this point. Finger food makes toddler feel more important and in charge of their life, so definitely introduce these, plus they are quick to make too, a massive bonus when you are all alone and on solo parenting :-)


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