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PLAYING: Your toddler’s developing feeding skills

Your toddler’s developing feeding skills

Your toddler has come a long way since that first spoonful of puree went in (and probably came straight back out again!). Knowing what to expect from your toddler developmentally can help make family mealtimes more pleasant for the whole family. Here’s how you can help continue their journey towards becoming an independent, healthy eater.

8 mins to read Jan 4, 2022
Toddler feeding skills


3 reasons to drink from a cup

Did you know? Prolonged use of bottles is linked with a higher chance of tooth decay and becoming overweight. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that toddlers be off bottles before 18 months of age.  

If you haven’t already introduced your toddler to drinking from a cup, now is a good time to try. 

  1. By 12 months of age, most babies have the coordination skills needed to hold a cup and drink from it.
  2. Your toddler is ready to drink from an open cup, rather than a lidded or sippy cup, or can even use a cup with a straw. 
  3. Now that your baby has reached their first birthday, they can drink whole cow’s milk, so it’s a good idea to introduce a cup at the same time.
Toddler feeding skills

Which milk when? 

Which? With cow’s milk now an option for your toddler, you may be wondering which milk to choose. Whole (f3.25%) cow’s milk is the most appropriate choice for toddlers at this age. Nutritional toddler drinks can also be part of a healthy, balanced diet. Alternative types of non-dairy milk, such as soy, almond, rice, and coconut, might not contain enough protein and calcium to meet your growing toddler’s needs and are not recommended for children under 2 years.  Check with your healthcare professional if you would like to use non-dairy types of milk. 

When? Experts recommend introducing cow’s milk between 9 and 12 months of age, once your child is eating a variety of iron-rich foods. Check with your healthcare professional if you have any concerns.

Why? Fat is an important and necessary nutrient in your toddler’s diet. Whole milk contains around one and a half teaspoons of fat per cup, compared with only one teaspoon per cup in low-fat (2%) milk. While you may choose low-fat milk for yourself, remember that your toddler needs the fat in whole milk for healthy growth.

Toddler feeding skills

Dos and don’ts when drinking from a cup

By now your toddler is enjoying their developing independence with finger-feeding. Learning to drink from a cup is one more skill for them on the path to becoming an independent eater.

Do use small, toddler-sized cups and fill them up. This will make it easier to master the skill of drinking as wthey don’t have to tip the cup up too much. 
Don’t worry if they drop or throw their cup away once they’ve finished—this is their way of telling you they have had enough to drink.

Do be patient and allow your child plenty of practice. They’’ll get there eventually.
Don’t rush or pressure them to drink faster. It won’t help them develop the skill more quickly.

Do expect spillages—especially as they learn to drink from an open cup. Spilling is likely to happen at all three stages of drinking—bringing the cup to their mouth, drinking, and taking the cup away from their mouth.  
Don’t get upset if they make a mess. It’s all part of the learning experience.

Do choose plastic, easy-to-grip cups.
Don’t let them carry the cup everywhere they go.

Do offer a cup of water with meals and throughout the day.
Don’t put them to bed with a cup.

Do use cups that hold 120-180ml (4-6oz), which is an appropriate amount for their age and size.
Don’t be concerned if your toddler doesn’t show all of these skills yet. Every child develops differently.

Toddler feeding skills

Be water wise 

Up until your little one’s first birthday, breast milk and/or infant formula and water were the only drinks recommended. This is because breast milk and/or infant formula, along with a balanced diet, provided all the nutrition they needed. Now that they’re one year old,  they can also be offered whole cow’s milk* 

Water is…
…hydrating As well as being involved in practically all bodily functions, water helps make sure your toddler is staying properly hydrated. 
…calorie-free Water doesn’t contain any calories, so all your toddler’s energy needs can come from nutritious foods, breast milk, and whole cow’s milk. 
…teeth-safe Because it doesn’t contain any sugars, water won’t damage your toddler’s teeth. 

Some parents and caregivers offer toddlers sugar-sweetened beverages or other soft drinks. These can have a negative effect on your toddler’s health and teeth. 

Soft drinks can be…
…high in calories Sugar-sweetened beverages contain a large number of calories. Drinking a lot of these may mean that your toddler is consuming more calories than they need on a daily basis. This can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
…full of sugar Fizzy drinks, juice drinks, and flavoured waters can contain a surprising amount of added sugar. The World Health Organization recommends reducing “free sugar” (which includes sugar in unsweetened fruit juices and smoothies) intake in the daily diets of both adults and children.
…harmful to teeth Added sugars in drinks can cause tooth decay. The bacteria naturally found in your toddler’s saliva reacts with the sugars to produce acids which can damage teeth. To help promote healthy teeth and gums, remember to brush your little one’s teeth twice a day. Use a smear (the size of a grain of rice) of fluoride toothpaste specifically made for toddlers.  

Role model healthy-drinking choices. If your little one sees you enjoying water, they’re more likely to drink water too. Offer whole fruit instead of juice.  If you do  offer juice, follow these tips:

  • Choose 100% juice and avoid “fruit drinks” and “juice drinks”, which may contain added sugar (and not much real fruit). 
  • Don’t give your toddler more than 120ml (4oz) of juice in one day.
  • Make the juice part of a meal or snack.
Toddler feeding skills

Your family-mealtime essentials kit

Preparation is key when it comes to pleasant mealtimes for the whole family. It’s as important to think about how you offer your toddler food as what you offer them. Provide a warm, nurturing environment, without any pressure on your toddler to eat. Having these items ready may help you feel more relaxed, giving you the chance to engage and interact with your toddler for a shared family meal.

  • Highchair
    Keep your toddler safe by strapping them into a highchair that is pulled up to the family table. Remember that theyhave a short attention span so may not be able to sit there for a long time. It’s a good idea to wait until their meal is ready (and cool enough to eat) before putting them in the highchair.
  • Mat or floor covering
    Your little one is still learning to feed themself so don’t be surprised if some food misses the target and ends up on the floor. They may also be more interested in playing with food than eating it. This is completely normal. If they start throwing food or utensils, it may be a sign they’ve finished. Remind her that throwing is not allowed. If it continues, take them out of their highchair and let them know that they can continue to play—just not with their food.
  • Bib
    Encourage your toddler to feed themself, even though they haven’t completely mastered their cutlery skills quite yet. They may be able to get food onto a spoon, but it might not all make it into their mouth without spilling. Protect their clothes with a bib or covering and offer a combination of finger foods and foods that they can try to spoon-feed themself. 
  • Cloth or baby wipes
    Toddlers discover new foods and textures with all their senses. Wanting to touch, smear, and squish foods instead of eating them is completely natural. Let them explore and get messy during the meal. Then be ready for the big clean-up once they’ve finished.
  • Training cup and/or straw
    Offer milk or water in an appropriately sized cup with easy-to-hold handles. You can try a training cup with a spout (free-flow rather than with a valve) but aim for an open cup or even a cup with a straw. This will help your little one learn to sip rather than suck.
  • Toddler-size cutlery
    Little hands need little spoons, forks, and (non-sharp) knives. Cutlery with easy-grip handles can make it easier for them to control. 
  • Patience!
    Your toddler is busy learning a lifetime skill and needs to practice in their own time. They’ll probably take longer to finish their meal than the rest of the family, so try not to rush them. Keep the atmosphere pleasant and take the opportunity to enjoy a conversation as a family. That way, they’re learning eating and social skills at the same time.

Don’t forget about how you are offering food to your toddler!

Even though your toddler is becoming more independent at the dinner table, your parent feeding style is still important for their future health. “A responsive feeding style is linked to healthier weight and dietary intake in children. For toddlers, this means offering a variety of foods in a warm, nurturing environment, and having structured mealtimes with consistent expectations (such as children eating at the table). As always, it is important to respond to your toddler’s hunger and fullness cues.” explains Lisa Fries, PhD, Behavioral Science Specialist at Nestlé Research in Switzerland.  So, don’t forget to follow the principles of responsive feeding. See The dos and don’ts of responsive feeding for helpful reminders of good feeding practices for your little one.


  • Black MM, Aboud FE. Responsive feeding is embedded in a theoretical framework of responsive parenting. J Nutr 2011; 141(3): 490-4.

  • Bonuck K, Ben Avraham S, Hearst M, et al. Is overweight at 12 months associated with differences in eating behaviour or dietary intake among children selected for inappropriate bottle use? Matern Child Nutr 2014; 10(2):234-44.

  • Dattilo AM Programming long-term health: Effect of parent feeding approaches on long-term diet and eating patterns. In: Early nutrition and long-term health, mechanisms, consequences and opportunities. Ed., Saavedra and Dattilo, Elsevier, 2017: 471-95.


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