Transitioning from Spoons to Fingers

When transitioning from spoon-feeding to self-feeding, common challenges can include food refusal, frustration, and gagging.

It’s not uncommon to face challenges when transitioning baby from spoon-fed purées to finger foods. Babies transitioning to finger foods are working hard at developing lots of new skills, such as chewing and moving food around to swallow, mapping the mouth, and learning where and how food moves in the mouth. Common challenges include refusing to touch food or self-feed, frustration, and gagging.

When a hunger drive turns into frustration: What to do when baby isn’t interested in touching food

Some families start reducing baby’s breast/human milk or formula intake around 8-9 months to encourage some hunger motivation at the table. If baby was previously eating a certain amount of spoon-fed purées to fill the belly, the breast or bottle feed reduction makes sense. However, eating solid foods requires a different kind of oral motor development and that wean-induced hunger motivation can quickly turn to frustration and cause baby to give up trying to eat solid foods. 

  • If baby is too hungry and frustrated to touch or try food: 
  • Offer a little more breast/human milk or formula throughout the day.
  • Offer purée along with finger foods at the meal. 
  • If offering purée at the meal, allow baby to self-feed with a preloaded spoon. 
  • The purée simply allows a familiar and easier way for baby to satisfy their hunger while retaining some hunger drive motivation to try self-feeding.

For more information, check out our article about not touching food.

Map the mouth, reduce the gag: What to do when baby has a sensitive gag reflex

Some babies have a strong or sensitive gag reflex and gag frequently while others are more tolerant and rarely gag; both extremes are usually normal, as is every level in between. Sensitive-gag babies will often gag frequently, even with textured purées. 

Remember: for 6 months or more, baby’s brain has processed a single consistency in the mouth—liquid in the form of breast/human milk or formula. As we introduce solids, the brain has to process new textures. Something new and different can cause the brain to think, “Nope! This isn’t right. Get this thing out!”— and initiates a gag. 

The best way to decrease the intensity and frequency of the gag reflex is to provide lots of deep input to the mouth with long, hard sticks of food. These foods include: 

  • Mango pit 
  • Rib bone with the meat removed
  • Strips of bell pepper
  • Corn on the cob
  • Frozen celery stick
  • Chicken leg with skin and connective tissue removed
  • Pork chop on the bone
  • Resistive strips of meat (such as fajita meat)
  • Kale rib
  • Carrot (very thick)

These foods won’t contribute to calories consumed or swallowed, but will help map the inside of the mouth. These foods help the brain understand that different consistencies are okay by providing deep, firm, consistent input to the mouth, gums, and tongue. Lumpy purées are confusing—both a bit smooth and lumpy—and don’t provide the brain with enough feedback to effectively map the mouth. 

In contrast, the long, resistive, teether-like foods clearly communicate to the brain and provide input about where that food is located on the tongue, against the gums, how to move it around, and where a gag initiates. Baby’s brain needs lots of communication to learn how to safely and efficiently move food around the mouth. 

With a sensitive-gagging baby: 

  • Offer long, resistive food teethers daily.
  • Food teethers are great for snack time, either before lunch or dinner. 
  • Remember: these foods are not for calories or intake but instead provide an oral-motor exercise to build skill. 

Looking for more information about gagging? Check out this article about gagging or this video about gagging, choking, and infant rescue. 

Baby won’t touch food or feed themselves. Can I put food in baby’s mouth? 

Placing or putting food in baby’s mouth isn’t the safest feeding method.1 Self-feeding provides more swallowing safety by allowing the baby multiple points of sensory input from the hands, lips, mouth, tongue, and gums to process consistency, texture, size, and location of the food.

However, if baby won’t touch the food or feed themselves, try holding a resistive food (such as those mentioned above) in front of baby and allow them to move forward, open the mouth, and take a bite, or reach out and grab the item from you. Optionally, try holding the item between your teeth, lean in, and let baby grab it from your mouth. 

Placing a piece of food in baby’s mouth can feel surprising for baby and make it more difficult to manage that piece of food. Additionally, food placed in the mouth is often positioned right in the front of the mouth, which makes it easy to spit out, but also makes it harder for the tongue to move the food to the side. Baby needs to feel pressure along the sides of the mouth and gums which tells the tongue to move side-to-side, and helps baby learn to move and keep food on the side for chewing. The resistive foods mentioned above help encourage this kind of movement around the mouth.

If baby isn’t interested in touching food or feeding themselves:

  • Continue breast or bottle feeds as normal and listen to baby’s communication. 
  • At solid food meals, pair smooth purées with resistive teether-like foods to encourage chewing practice while reducing hunger frustration. 
  • After a week or two of consistent practice, offer foods that may break apart a bit in the mouth, such as omelettes or cooked vegetables.
  • Watch for improvement in moving the food to the side. Baby should recognize that the tongue can move things to the side of the mouth where they can start chewing.

Looking for more guidance? Check out the Spoons to Finger webinar.

  1. Fangupo, L. J., Heath, A. L. M., Williams, S. M., Erickson Williams, L. W., Morison, B. J., Fleming, E. A., Taylor, B. J., Wheeler, B. J., & Taylor, R. W. (2016). A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking. PEDIATRICS, 138(4), e20160772.
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