Autonomy and Table Manners

for Babies

Mealtime is a learning process – discovering foods your baby can eat, teaching them to be curious and adventurous when it comes to food. It’s also the beginning of new relationships and interactions for babies; sitting beside their parents, siblings, learning to be autonomous and understanding the rules to be respected at the table. A whole new world for babies! Parents are often worried about teaching their baby table manners – when is a baby supposed to eat with a spoon or fork or drink from an open cup? Or questions about cleanliness at mealtime and what is an appropriate age to start teaching the basics. So let’s have a look at table manners for little ones!

When and how to serve water to babies


You can start introducing open cups, straw cups or sippy cups at the table as early as 6 months old. Just make sure that your baby has met all the signs of readiness as mentioned in the guide “When to Start a Baby on Solid Foods?”. Offering water at this age is optional. Until 12 months of age we are talking about learning a new skill rather than actually consuming water. There are many opinions about what’s best when it comes to introducing water to a baby at the table, whether it should not be offered in a baby bottle to avoid confusion with breastmilk or formula, or that some cups slow down the learning process. In the end, trust that your baby will learn to drink from a cup, as long as you demonstrate how to use it correctly. Let them choose to try, or not. And if you offer some water in a bottle on the go because it’s hot outside, then that’s totally fine. Just make sure you expose your little ones to cups once at home. 


Teaching babies to use cutlery


If you’ve been exclusively spoon-feeding, around 9 months is a good time to start introducing finger foods so that your baby can start learning to eat alone with the fingers. Pincer grasp should be fully developed by 12 months and you can see that your baby is much more agile when it comes to grabbing food, even tiny pieces, and bringing it to the mouth. It will of course depend on each child but between 1 to 2.5 years old, your baby will be able to eat alone with a spoon. Around 3, you can start introducing a small baby fork and by 4, your child should be autonomous and start using both fork and knife together, always supervised by an adult. 


Cleanliness at the table


As parents, we all dream that our little ones don’t put their hands on their plates, don’t play with the food or throw it on the floor. We almost feel like we’re not teaching them the “right” behavior if we let them do it. And let’s be honest, it is a pain to clean what seems to be an afterparty mess (except without the party) after baby’s meal. But remember, letting your baby touch food is actually very important. It’s their opportunity to discover different textures, tastes, smells. Food is as interesting as a new toy and worth investigating. It’s also fun! The more fun a baby has with food, the earlier they will learn to manipulate utensils.  And not letting a baby explore might even result in picky eating or late development when it comes to food. But again, if it’s been a long day, and you don’t feel like cleaning up behind your little one, there’s nothing wrong about spoon-feeding and keeping it clean. Just ensure that the baby has an opportunity to have fun and explore some other time. Team work makes the dream work and both parents and baby need some peace of mind when necessary. 


Model good behavior


When it comes to table manners, demonstrate what’s appropriate, your baby will learn and follow your cue. Set the tone when it comes to throwing food on the floor, give your baby the spoon regularly and explain how to use it, be patient, and feel free to take over when you feel that more food goes on the floor than in their mouths. You can also get a tableware toy set for your baby to practice with outside mealtimes, especially if you’d like to keep your floor clean! 


Joyful mealtimes with the family

Food remains a moment of joy, shared with the family. Your baby will explore, discover and have fun! Trust that autonomy and table manners will come with time. You set the limits but make sure that you remain patient. 


You can book a consultation with me to go over table manners and rules at the table, and ensure that you gently teach your little one to become autonomous while eating!

“No culture has a monopoly on wisdom or absurdity.” 

– Jellife D.

Child Nutrition in Developing Countries: A Handbook for Fieldworkers. Washington, DC: United States Public Health Service; 1968

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