My eight-month-old baby Tony has always has always had a great appetite, but now he only wants to feed himself. That wouldn't be so bad if his aim were better, but most of the food winds up in his hair. If I try to feed him, he clamps his lips together, scowls, and turns away. Mealtimes are getting to be very difficult. He still likes his bottle, but he won't let me hold it for him unless he's very sleepy. His dad says I shouldn't worry, but I'm afraid he won't get all the food he needs to keep growing well.
It sounds as though you and Tony are on the verge of a major war over feeding. Parents often feel that it's important to get a baby to eat a certain amount of food at every meal. Moms, especially, may feel that their babies' willingness to eat is a reflection of their competence as mothers. They know that it's not, of course, but feeding is a powerful symbol of nurturing, and you're not the first mom to feel frustrated because your ideas of feeding your baby are in conflict with his ideas.
I can assure you that Tony's behavior is typical of an older baby, although he sounds as though he is very communicative and expressive about his desire to be self-directed. Tony wants to feed himself because he is excited about the challenge of a new task. The challenge of learning to do something difficult is more important to him than getting the food into his mouth. Even though he is not skilled enough to be able to do the job well, he's not a quitter, and he wants to keep trying. These are pretty impressive characteristics for such a little person, aren't they?
Of course, you are stuck with the messy clean-up job after Tony has struggled with his meal. Most older babies need sponge baths and even hair washes after every meal, but you might be able to minimize the mess and help Tony to eat better if you try some of these ideas:
• Offer Tony his favorite foods in "finger food" form. Instead of giving him soft foods that drip and need a spoon to reach his mouth, offer stickier or more solid foods that he can pick up. Even if Tony only has a few teeth, he can handle purees of fruits and vegetables that you thicken to an almost solid consistency by mixing them with mashed potatoes or rice cereal.
• Even though Tony likes a bottle, offer him a cup with a secure lid, spout, and two handles. He'll have another challenge and another skill to master. You can still offer a bottle when you are holding him.
• While Tony feeds himself, sit with him and talk and smile. You can have a bite to eat yourself, or drink a cup of tea. Make his mealtime a sociable event, not a time when he feels pressured to eat.
• After Tony has fed himself for a while, you can try offering him a few bites of food from a spoon. Some babies are willing to let their parents feed them after they've had a chance to try on their own. However, if Tony pulls back or refuses your offer, don't coax or encourage him.. A baby who sees mealtime as a time of struggle may become a toddler who continues to resist food.
• As hard as it may seem in the middle of a meal, try to remember that your goal in feeding Tony is more than filling him up with food. It's to help him to feel good about eating and enjoying food. Tony doesn't know (or care) that he is making a mess. All he knows is that he wants to grow up and take care of himself, whether it's easy-for either of you -or not!