For us, eating seems so simple. Maybe a little too simple sometimes ;). It’s almost automatic; we don’t even have to think about it. Take a bite, chew, swallow, done. But did you know there are certain feeding milestones you’ve reached that have helped you learn how to eat?
Strange to picture, I know!
Stop and think for one second. Imagine you are taking a bite of toast. Think about all the little individual steps that you actually take to accomplish eating that toast.
All the different muscles used to move the food further into your mouth, chew it up properly and swallow. Wow! It’s actually quite a process!
These steps to simply eat something are a learned skill. It takes about two years for our little munchkins to learn how to eat. More recent studies have suggested that it can take up to ages 4 or 5 for them to be truly proficient at these skills.
What’s the big deal with these feeding milestones?
I always found that knowing the physical and developmental milestones my baby was going through really helped me prepare for the next. But more importantly, it allowed me to figure out how to best support them!
From the ages of 4 months to 2 years, there are certain oral motor skills that our babies and toddlers need to learn so that they can be adventurous eaters. If we’re not aware of these feeding milestones, or we don’t know what to look for, our kiddo may run into a challenge and we are unprepared to support them. I know because it happened to me as a mom a million times in my parenting journey, so hopefully, I can spare you some #momfails at mealtimes :).
It breaks my heart when I hear these kids being labeled as “selective”, “picky”, “are just strong-willed”, or we just start believing that they are being difficult “on purpose” and the end result is that mealtimes are an exhausting battleground.
When your toddler has strong food aversions, is being super selective with the foods eat, or end up on the white or beige diet, these are all signs that we need to pay closer attention to their oral motor skills and their sensory preferences when it comes to mealtime.
The good news is: these feeding milestones can still be reached at any age. In fact, at the base of feeding therapy is teaching these oral motor skills to older munchkins who might have skipped a step. We go into this in more detail in my course, From Picky To Eating for Toddlers.
I want to give you fair warning. If you’re looking at these milestones and are thinking “OMG, my baby doesn’t do that”, please stop. Don’t play the blame game or feel that you are behind. The idea is to always give your child new skills regardless of what age they are at.
Here are the main physical and oral motor milestones kids will go through when learning how to eat.
4-6 Months Old Baby Feeding Milestones
Although this is the time when most babies will begin to bring objects to their mouths and begin to explore the world with their mouths, they are not truly ready for solids in the way we think about feeding an older baby.
They are not quite able to support themselves upright without help. They’ve started to recognize hunger – they may reach for their bottles or lean into their mama’s breasts.
Physically, their heads will start to elongate, and the fatty cheek deposits with go down ever so slightly. The tongue at this point just moves back and forth, but it’s gaining strength!
Your little ones at this age may be interested in your plate and what you are eating. More and more research is coming out suggesting that the more foods we expose our littles early on, even as early as 4 months, the better.
At this age, your baby can only handle solids the consistency of breastmilk. Think super thin purees! You’ll see a lot more recommendations staring to come our professionals to go ahead and start giving the young one tastes of your food.
This generally takes the shape of dipping your finger in a sauce, or in the tiniest bit of something like, kefir, or seed and nut butter (barring any allergies), and rub it inside their cheek.
I always loved making chamomile popsicles for my little ones at this age. It really calms their sore gums!
6-7 Months Old Baby Feeding Milestones
At this age, babies are usually able to hold themselves upright for a good 3 to 5 seconds. They do have some strength to support themselves, but they might still need some help with towels propped around them.
This is when they start to establish good head and neck control. You may have noticed your little one transferring a toy from one hand to another.
Transferring hands is actually a clue! Gross motor skills lead to fine motor skills. That external side to side motion usually signals that they are able to do the same thing with their fine motor skills, like using their tongue more!
Utilizing their tongue in that same side to side motion is one of the first milestones in learning how to chew and eat.
7-8 Months Old Baby Feeding Milestones
Gaining more muscle strength in their lips, our littles start to build more lip control. They may be able to close their top lip on a spoon, pulling the food into their mouths (as opposed to sucking the content off the spoon, which is actually super cute to watch).
Closer to the 8-month mark, you can give them long hard munchables (like a long carrot stick) to chew on. Or, another option is a long teething toy like these chewy tubes. I like the long stick-shape ones with a large part at the bottom for them to hold. These foods are not actually meant to be eaten and you always supervise your little one when giving it to them.
There are a few purposes of the hard munchable foods. First, they help with strengthening the tongue as it’s learning to go side to side. Second it actually also helps teeth come in! And third, it helps push back the gag reflex.
8-10 Months Old Baby Feeding Milestones
At this point, your baby may be using their fingers to bring food closer to them or move it around their tray. They can push food inside their mouths or possibly hold food in their mouths.
Now is a great time to introduce a cup with a very small amount of water. They can practice holding the cup and drinking.
For the oral motor skills milestones, they are establishing their circular jaw movements. This is how we chew – in a slight rotation motion. They’re able to break off pieces of food and able to chew soft foods like roasted vegetables.
10-12 Months Old Baby Feeding Milestones
By this age, a baby’s pincer grip is really getting a leap in it’s development. They’re starting to grab foods off their tray with three and eventually with two fingers. It’s so fun to watch them take pride in feeding themselves!
They may be using their fingers more to hold their food in place where they want it in the mouth. They’re also controlling their bites more.
Oral motor: Moving food from sides of the mouth to the middle of tongue and back. Our little ones are exploring how it works – how to manipulate the food. I advise my clients to stick to one texture at a time for now for a couple of reasons.
First, when a baby has a food that has both liquids and solids, it’s too many steps. When they have a mixture of textures, the puree gets swallowed right away but there are still chunks left on the top of the mouth to deal with.
Second, their gag reflex is still located towards the middle of the mouth. Exactly where those chunks were left after swallowing their purees. Many babies at this stage experience gagging with food for this exact reason. Especially if we have a baby that did not go through a stage of putting toys in their mouths or used the hard munchables to safely push the gag reflex back.
Since they are just starting to figure out how to manipulate the food, it’s best to give them one texture at a time. Either pureed, chunky, crunchy, etc. This way, they can practice what to do for each texture individually and have he skills ready when it will be time for them to learn to handle mixed textures.
12-14 Months Old Toddler Feeding Milestones
Here comes the fun part – interest in utensils! They see everyone else at the table using forks and spoons, and they want in on it! Help them load spoons, or poke food with forks, and help them guide it to their mouth.
Yes, it can take much longer, but it’s an important milestone for them to feel like everyone else!
They’re also able to regularly keep food inside their mouths. Their lip closure is strong and there is less spillage. But sorry to say that does not always mean less of a mess ;).
Milestones with oral motor skills include the ability to chew and swallow firmer foods. They are able to break those foods down into mush or liquid.
Now that they’ve gained the skills for managing liquid, soft, or hard foods separately, they can eat the mixture foods. They will know just what to do to handle those sensations and multiple textures.
14-16 Months Old Toddler Feeding Milestones
At this age, little ones are good with feeding themselves using their fingers. Using utensils should still continue to be practiced.
Their tongues can gather scattered pieces throughout the mouth, and they can chew harder foods. At this point, the munchkins are able to chew and break food down very well to get it super mushy.
18-24 Months Old Toddler Feeding Milestones
This age group is busy practicing moving food from front to back to chew with their molars. They’ve realized those back teeth can really grind up food, especially meat.
It is actually a difficult skill to keep food on the back molars as you chew. So, they’re practicing holding that food in the back of the mouth.
I love this age because it’s fun to make little snack trays with dips. Our kiddos are able to dip foods now. They will continue to practice utensil use.
2 Years Old Toddler Feeding Milestones
Practice, practice, practice!
Hopefully, these feeding milestones will help you support your little munchkin as they navigate their new eating skills.
Try to create fun ways to help them out! Sometimes they practice something and have it down, then need a break from it. Or maybe they need a little extra help some days.
It’s okay to help and let them take some breaks. The important thing is that we are overall working on those skills and helping them accomplish these feeding milestones!