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When Can Kids Feed Themselves? (and other mealtime milestones)

How Eating & Self-Feeding Relate to Occupational Therapy

"Is it difficulty with hand-eye coordination or fine motor skills needed for finger-feeding or using utensils? Difficulty with coordinating movements of the jaw, tongue, and lips to efficiently chew and swallow? Difficulty sitting in one place long enough to attend to and complete a meal? Difficulty assuming and maintaining a position that will provide enough postural stability during mealtime? These are all factors an OT practitioner can consider when evaluating a child’s mealtime challenges and designing an appropriate treatment plan.

Developmental Progression of Eating & Self-Feeding Skills

So how do you know if your child’s development of eating and self-feeding skills are on-track or not?

Here are some general guidelines to help you out!

4-6 Months:

  • Baby suckles in anticipation of spoon coming near

  • Gag reflex present

  • Pats and/or places both hands on bottle or breast when drinking

  • Attempts to secure tiny object (piece of food) with a few fingers or whole hand, makes contact but often unsuccessful

7-9 Months: 

  • Baby can close lips around spoon and clean it after bites

  • Gag slightly less sensitive

  • Begins to hold own food for voluntary bite

  • Can hold own bottle when drinking

10-12 Months: 

  • Begins to take controlled bites of soft cookie

  • Begins to drink from open cup with more jaw control (adult holds cup)

  • Begins to use thumb and tip of index finger (“neat pincer” grasp) to pick up small food items and finger-feed at least half of a meal

13-15 Months: 

  • May bite on cup to stabilize jaw

  • Starting to close lips while chewing

  • Learning to make controlled bite on hard cookie

16-18 Months: 

  • Improved control of liquid within mouth

  • By 18 months, can hold own open cup to pick up, drink, and set down with some spillage

18-24 Months: 

  • Chews food completely with “rotary” jaw movements (jaw & tongue work together to move food around mouth)

  • By 24 months, feeds self with spoon with some spillage (“sticky” food such as mashed potatoes, thick oatmeal, pudding)

19-24 Months: 

  • Can use tongue to clean lips

  • Can drink from straw with lips (vs. biting straw while drinking)

  • Can transfer food from one side of mouth to other (across midline)

25-36 Months: 

  • By 30 months, can drink from small open cup using one hand

  • By 36 months, can use a fork to pierce soft foods and bring to mouth

3-4 Years: 

  • Swallows food in mouth before taking another bite

  • Serves self at table (can pour and scoop without spilling)

  • Holds cup with one hand while holding straw with other hand to drink

3 1/2 to 4 1/2 Years: 

  • Can open at least 5 different kinds of food containers without assistance (e.g., milk carton, juice with straw, jar, food bag, etc.)

  • Can prepare simple foods for eating (e.g., peeling, pouring, unwrapping, putting in straw)

4 to 5 Years: 

  • Puts appropriate amount of food in mouth and can chew with lips closed. Can spread soft substances with a plastic/child-safe knife

5 to 6 Years: 

  • Can cut foods with a knife under supervision (dull knife or slightly serrated, not sharp)

5 1/2 to 6 1/2 Years:

  • Can cut with a fork and knife (entire process of holding utensils, controlling and cutting food, and bringing to mouth)

  • While every child develops and progresses at their own rate, it can be helpful to have an understanding of when particular milestones are expected and what the natural progression is. You may find that your child is actually more ready to take their self-feeding skills to the next level than you thought!"

Article Created by:

KILEY, C., ADAM & Mila - Emil says, Says, C., Says, C., Says, A., & Says, M. (2016, October 26). When Can Kids Feed Themselves? (and other mealtime milestones). Retrieved August 05, 2020, from

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