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Feeding Development: The First Three Years of Life

The first three years of a child’s life are incredibly exciting and filled with bursts of development that are far-reaching. One such time of excitement is a child’s feeding development. Most children will develop mastery of the necessary skills for eating and drinking and feeding themselves by age three.

During the early years, so much is going on in a child’s brain and body to get them to a place of skill mastery and confidence. With the support of mindful and loving caregivers, the stage is set for children to successfully navigate these feeding transitions on their journey toward becoming independent eaters and drinkers.  

The chart below displays the typical feeding timeline for a child between birth and 36 months of age. It also shows the most likely food and liquid they can safely manage and the associated skills they gain along the way. Keep in mind that with all development, culture and cultural practices play a vital role in the way in which development unfolds.  

Typical Feeding Development for Children 0 to 36 Months (0 to 3 Years)

Age Range Diet Food Textures & Liquid Consistencies Developmental Skills  
0-6 Months Only breast milk or formula Breast milk or formula consistency  Sucking and swallowing when born 

Rooting reflex for finding liquids 
6-7 Months Slow introduction to age-appropriate solid foods 

Primary reliance on breast milk or formula 
Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated 

Pureed solids 
Improved head and neck strength for sitting and eating 
7-9 Months Taking more solid food 

Primary reliance on breast milk or formula 
Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated 

Pureed solids
 
Minced and moist solids 
Learning to eat and drink from spoons and cups 

Sitting upright with little to no support 
8-10 Months Eating a greater variety of foods
 
Consuming larger amounts of food and liquid, but less often throughout the day 
Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated
 
Pureed solids
 
Minced and moist solids 

Soft and bite-sized solids 
Developing early chewing patterns (munching)

Holding a bottle or cup during feedings and gaining practice with self-feeding foods using hands and utensils  
10-12 Months Eating a greater variety of foods
 
Consuming larger amounts of food and liquid, but less often throughout the day 
Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated
 
Pureed solids
 
Minced and moist solids
 
Soft and bite-sized solids 
Developing more mature chewing patterns
 
Biting down through certain foods, using gums and teeth 
12-18 Months Eating a variety of food textures with growing success Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated
 
Pureed solids
 
Minced and moist solids
 
Soft and bite-sized solids 
Drinking from a straw
 
Using fingers to self-feed and trying to use utensils more often with less support
 
Drinking from a cup with some loss of liquid  
18-24 Months Eating most food textures without support Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated
 
Pureed solids
 
Minced and moist solids
 
Soft and bite-sized solids
 
Regular solids  
Feeding using fingers and utensils without support
 
Showing mastery of all oral motor skills for eating and drinking 
24-36 Months Eating most food textures without support Thin liquids, unless otherwise indicated
 
Pureed solids
 
Minced and moist solids
 
Soft and bite-sized solids
 
Regular solids 
Using fingers and utensils with greater success and moving toward mastery
 
Drinking from a cup with minimal loss of liquid and moving toward mastery  

Concerned about food safety for your young food explorer? Refer to FoodSafety.gov for information on the safe preparation and storage of formula and pureed foods.

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6 Tips for Supporting Food and Liquid Introductions to a Child  

1. Pay attention to development, not just age. A child’s chronological age is only one indicator of their readiness for advancing in their feeding development. What’s often more important are their developmental skills. A child will show you their “readiness” to take on a new feeding challenge by demonstrating specific and necessary skills. Watch for these key developmental skills that help indicate when new experiences may be on the horizon for a child.  

2. Be prepared. Preparing children before a new mealtime experience is critical for success. Prepare the environment and the child’s body and mind. Share with the child what you will be offering that is different before it happens. Try using spoken words (“Let’s try a new taste today! Pears!”), offer opportunities to explore new smells and textures, or show a child visually what new food is to come. Get yourself excited and organized for the new experience. The more preparation you offer, the more potential for success!   

3. Start with what is familiar. Children do best when consistent, familiar routines are used. Keep a schedule for meals, use the same feeding utensils, feed in the same chair and room, and offer a child a familiar food or liquid first. This will aid in the steady expansion of new flavors, textures and other feeding experiences when a child is ready. 

4. Offer lots of exploration time. Exploration of new food and non-food items (i.e., cups, bowls, spoons, etc.) is a great way to support the novelty of an experience for a child. Let children explore items using all of their senses often, especially their hands. 

5. Make changes one at a time. Children do well when changes are made one at a time versus all at once. Take your time when making changes to a mealtime, including offering a new flavor, texture or experience. For example, if you’re offering a new cup, keep the liquid inside of it familiar to the child. If you’re offering a new food, offer one new item at a meal alongside other tried-and-true, familiar favorites. 

6. Be positive. Offering positive interactions with a child during mealtimes (and beyond) is the best way to support this process. Keeping mealtimes calm, low-stress and enjoyable all lead to more positive mealtime experiences for everyone.  

So much is happening during the first three years of life, including a child’s learning how to safely eat and drink. When caregivers better understand early developmental milestones related to feeding development and this potential feeding timeline, they are more equipped to successfully support this process for a child. Also, it’s important to remember that this is an estimated guide. Some children will have a timeline that looks different based on their own unique capacities and needs. If you have questions or challenges regarding a child’s feeding development, seek support from an expert in your community, such as a feeding specialist or occupational therapist.

For more details on feeding best practices, download Holt International’s Feeding & Positioning Manual: Guidelines for Working With Babies and Children. 

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