Baby disinterested at mealtimes

“My daughter who is one does not seem interested in feeding herself. Whenever I sit down and eat with her – I try to guide her fingers into her mouth while she is holding a piece of food. She starts crying hysterically. After 30 min of sitting there and playing with her food, I end up feeding her jarred baby food. She has even gone as far as handing the finger foods back to me and then opening her mouth to show me that she wants me to put it in her mouth. The same goes for sippy cup vs. bottle.”

You’ve got some ingrained habits that may not be quickly fixable, but I’ll answer the question in a general way that should help you and other families. You should talk with your pediatrician for more specific advice, and consider asking for a referral to a “feeding center” which works with children to establish better eating and feeding routines. I don’t know if your child is unable to feed herself, or unwilling. You didn’t mention any sort of motor delay or oral-motor problem, so I suspect it is more a matter of habit. However, you two are certainly locked in a battle of wills at this point, and you may need more hands-on expertise to work your way out of it.

Solid meals should start between four and six months, and should as much as possible take place as a family, with adults or siblings eating at the same time as the baby. Starting at nine months, every baby should have an opportunity to feed herself. Little safe soft morsels of food should be placed on the baby’s tray for her to pick up with her own little hands and put in her mouth. These table foods (or “finger foods,” or “people foods”) should never be fed to a child by a parent’s hand—that’s not how kids ought to eat. Babies can eat baby food fed to them by a parent, but children should always feed themselves, and at nine months table foods can easily be picked up and eaten by most babies. If a baby isn’t interested, just continue to spoon feed jar foods, but leave a few morsels to grab on the tray. Again, you have to eat as a family—it is essentially for babies to see how adults and children eat. They’ll copy the behavior without being “taught,” and without any adult guiding their hands. For more about the why and how of families meals, see this prior post.

A sippy cup of tap water should be on a baby’s tray at every single solid meal. When a baby sees everyone else drinking water with their meals, she’ll want a drink too. When she’s little, you can hold the cup; but certainly by 9 months she ought to be able to pick it up and take a drink when she wishes. Sippy cups without valves work better for babies.

My advice to you is to eat every meal with her together, at least three meals a day. Put a few grabbable morsels of food on her tray, right from the food on your plate (she should see you do this.) Then starting eating your own food. Every few bites, you can feed her a few spoons of baby food, then go back to eating yourself. Don’t talk about eating or food or congratulate her or comment in any way about how much or how little food she is eating or not eating. Never put adult-style food in her mouth with your fingers, and never try to “help her” feed herself. That’s her job. If this isn’t working, speak with your pediatrician.

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One Comment on “Baby disinterested at mealtimes”

  1. Allison Says:

    Dr. Roy,

    If I may…… 😉 ……You sort of gleaned over the oral motor topic here, but I think it’s important to point out that there is a possibility that this child does have oral motor and/or oral sensory issues. Most parents of young ones don’t even know what those two things are, so it deserves some more discussion when feeding issues come up.

    Children who have a hard time chewing or moving food around their mouth with their tongue will be reluctant eaters (this is the oral motor issue and/or a low tone issue). Children who find certain textures, consistencies or substances in their mouth offensive also will be reluctant eaters (this is the sensory issue).

    What I’d ask this mom is, does she ever eat table foods? Or will she only eat smooth baby foods? If she does eat table foods when they’re fed to her, does she have a hard time eating/swallowing? Are there certain textures, substances, consistencies of table foods that she won’t/can’t eat and spit out when put in her mouth? Does she chew her food well? Answers to these questions can help narrow down the issue. Reluctance to switch from the bottle to a sippy cup could also be an indication, but since SO many kids have a hard time with the transition, I wouldn’t put too much weight on that.

    Hope I didn’t step on any toes here. 😉 I’ve just BTDT with one of my own, and hate to see other parents struggle.



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