Spoon Fed for Life?

Dear Mamas,

My 13-month-old has me ready to scream! She’s an adorable, flirty little darling with the biggest brown eyes you ever saw and she’s got me jumping through hoops to get her to eat.

Here’s the picture: At mealtime I put her in her high chair and offer a wide variety of healthy, child-friendly foods prepared to exactly meet her toddler needs; like bits of cooked carrots, pasta pieces, soft peas, and on and on. BUT she refuses to pick any of it up and feed herself. She plays with it, smashes it into the tray, even paints her face with it — she just won’t swallow more than a bite.

After a few minutes I get frustrated and grab the baby spoon to move things along. She seems perfectly content to sit back and let me feed her. Once in a while she grabs the spoon from me and plays with it or tries to feed me with it, but she won’t use it to feed herself. Then I’m stuck placing food in her mouth while she happily entertains herself. It’s driving me nuts and seems to be getting worse rather than better. How can I get her to feed herself??

Pleeeease help us over this hump. I picture myself spoon feeding her for life!

Thanks so much.


Dear Carolina,

You’ve got a smart little charmer on your hands and she sure knows how to work the system! She’s trained you to feed her and is not giving up being catered to without a fight. It’s clear from your description that Chiquita is perfectly capable of handling her own finger food (she’s mastered the pincer grasp and has plenty of hand-eye coordination to get it to her mouth), she’d just prefer you do it for her. A future Chief Executive perhaps?

A few Mommy principles that apply here:

  1. Avoid doing anything for kiddos that they are capable of doing for themselves.
  2. There are 2 things you can’t force a child to do: eat and sleep.
  3. No healthy child ever starved if offered a variety of nutritious food.

I’m going to give some tips to help break the princess habit, but first you’ll need to copy those rules and put them up on the fridge in full view. Whenever you’re tempted to pick up that spoon repeat them to yourself like a mantra.

Then …

  • Make sure Queen Bee is hungry when meal time comes. That means limiting between-meal snacks and fluids other than water (especially juice). Offer solids first, before formula or milk.
  • Change up the scene. She’s got the script down, and expects you to put all the munchies on her tray, watch her play for awhile, and then get to work filling her belly. Instead, try putting one or two foods on her tray and then walk away.
  • Distract yourself with another task. Make your mental grocery list or go on Facebook for 5 minutes — anything BUT focusing on what she’s eating or not eating. Keep an eye from a distance but don’t make yourself available. After 5-10 minutes, remove the food and take her out of the high chair without any emotional charge. Offer the usual amount of formula or milk (not more) … meal over.
  • Resist the urge to offer food or snacks before the next regular meal time. She may get a little hungry, but that’s a good thing — her tummy will nudge her to eat the next time food is offered.
  • Repeat the routine at every regular mealtime, doing your best to keep a neutral emotional tone. Don’t let on how badly you want her to eat. Call on your inner actress to show that it’s entirely up to her.

This will not be easy at first. It’s lodged deep in our maternal souls that nourishing our babies is job one, and your cutie-patooty smarty pants has extended that to spoon feeding. What you’re doing is nudging her to practice a skill she’s more than ready for, and it will give her a sense of mastery and independence (not to mention prevent you from tearing your hair out).

Things to watch for:

~ Getting frustrated (and showing it) if it doesn’t seem to work the 1st, 2nd, or third time. She’s smart, can read you like a book. She will try to outlast you. Hang in there and she’ll be scarfing down finger foods in no time. Remember principle #3.

~ Gushing praise when she does bring a morsel of food to mouth. Emotional hugs from mom needn’t be associated with eating — a perfectly normal survival activity. Better idea to acknowledge  the action … like, “good job picking up that green bean!,” rather than, “good job eating all your lunch.” See the difference?

~ Giving in to unhealthy food choices just to get something into her. This is a slippery slope that leads to nothing but regret. Remember #3.

The good news is that children rarely enter school with Mommy following behind, spoon in hand. If you stick with it,  little diva will come aboard. We promise!

~ The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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