Baby Development Milestones Unpacked: A Comprehensive Age & Stage Guide to Natural Development
As a parent, witnessing your child learning how to eat as they go through feeding milestones is a truly amazing experience. We literally see them growing overnight! There are so many milestones that happen in their first year, so we wanted to create a set of general guidelines outlining the developmental expectations for your child’s feeding journey, based on their age.
It’s important to recognize that eating is one of the most intricate physical tasks a child undertakes. In fact, it takes a typically developing child a full two years to master the art of consuming a diverse range of foods. Remember, every child embarks on their feeding journey at their own pace, and there’s a wide spectrum of what’s considered normal. The key lies in proactive attention and support. By embracing these guidelines and seeking assistance when needed, you’re fostering a nurturing environment for your child’s holistic development.
A crucial note to consider: if your child was born prematurely, it’s recommended to gauge their progress based on their “adjusted” age, which reflects their developmental stage had they been born on their due date, rather than their “calendar” age. This adjustment for prematurity is significant until the child reaches the age of two, as it provides a more accurate understanding of their developmental milestones.
It’s very natural to have concerns about feeding milestones because this stems from our innate desire to ensure our baby’s basic needs are met and they are on track for optimal development. However, if you find that your child is facing challenges in meeting these feeding milestones, it’s advisable to initiate a conversation with their pediatrician or another qualified health professional. The process of eating is so multifaceted and truly looks different for every child. By seeking assistance at an early stage, you pave the way for a smoother realignment with their developmental journey.
We hope to provide clarity and guidance on the typical feeding development journey and empower you with knowledge and confidence.
Feeding milestones within a baby’s first year of life encompass a range of skills related to breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, and transitioning to solid foods. These milestones reflect a baby’s readiness for various feeding experiences, such as sucking, swallowing, self-feeding, and exploring new textures. It’s important to remember that each baby follows a unique timeline for these milestones. Variances in progression are totally normal and expected.
The feeding milestones we are focusing on are divided into age groups to provide a clear understanding of what to expect at different stages. For instance:
Did you know even in the womb your baby has been developing oral motor skills? After around 38–40 weeks post conception, your baby has developed several reflexes that are specific to their feeding development. These reflexes include the swallow reflex, phasic bite reflex, palmomental reflex and transverse tongue reflex. The ability to suck happens automatically and is supported by something called central pattern generators (CPGs). These are essentially adaptive groups of cells (interneurons) that specifically send signals to the motor neurons in muscles to initiate the strength and duration of movement needed to be able to suck (so cool!).1,2
Babies are also born with the ability to distinguish different concentrations of sweetness (as breast milk or formula is sweet!). There is also limited research to indicate that babies may be able to distinguish specific flavors of food too such as garlic and carrots. 3,4
Babies will also naturally display the palmar grasp reflex, where they close their fingers around an object placed in their palm. Additionally, the tongue thrust reflex, also known as the extrusion reflex, emerges in newborns. This reflex involves the automatic protrusion of the tongue in response to stimuli on the lips or mouth. The tongue thrust reflex serves as a protective mechanism, preventing the infant from ingesting solid foods before their digestive system is fully developed. It’s an important step as they prepare to transition to more complex feeding patterns. 5-9
You’ll start to see your baby exploring the world with their mouth! Around this time, it’s common for them to use their palmar grasp to reach for objects, bring them to the midline and also bring them to their mouths. They are still learning so they may go “too far” and gag occasionally. This eventually helps them learn the limits of their mouth!
Around this time, babies typically begin to show readiness for solids.
If your child has not started to demonstrate multiple milestones mentioned above (especially regarding trunk and head control), it’s okay to wait a week or so for solids. Babies develop so quickly! In the meantime, while you are waiting you can have them practice their chewing and munching skills with long stick-shaped teethers.
If you are opting for starting with purees and mashed foods, we recommend you take a responsive feeding approach where you do not force the spoon into their mouth and you follow their cues. This can mean holding the spoon a bit further so they lean in to take a bite or you can let them grab the spoon from you and explore the food.
If you want to opt for a “baby-led” approach to starting solids at this age you can start to offer soft low-risk choking hazard foods in stick shapes. Babies can bring them to their mouths to explore and learn a variety of flavors. For more information on starting solids, please read Introducing Solids to a Baby: A Guide for Parents.
You may also see baby gag on foods whether they are pureed or developmentally appropriate stick-shaped finger foods. This is common! Gagging is a protective reflex of a baby’s airway. With baby-led feeding approaches, one theory is to offer larger foods as in theory, it is less likely for the whole food to get stuck since the gag reflex pushes food forward and away from the airway. Gagging is very different from choking and it is important to read up on the differences to know when you should intervene or not.10
By this age, you may see them be able to bring their upper lip down to draw food off of the spoon. Full lip closure emerges around this time too. When solids are offered on the side of their mouth, you’ll start to see their tongue moving side to side aka consistent tongue lateralisation. This action will initiate an active movement of foods from the side of the mouth to the central tongue groove and back. Eventually leading to more mature tongue lateralisation.
Diagonal rotary movements. If you follow a “baby-led” approach to starting solids where the emphasis is supporting your baby to learn to self-feed at this age you can offer some low-risk stick-shaped foods. Ideally, the texture needs to be soft or meltable to continue to be safe for the baby. Babies can bring them to their mouths to explore and learn a variety of flavors.
Little Bellies range of TASTY TEXTURES for 7+ months babies offers a great variety of organic puffed snacks, designed for safe self-feeding, with many shapes, delicious flavors and textures to help build familiarity with food and promote independence.
You might see them put a finger in their mouth to move food and keep it in. You will also still likely see them use their fingers to rake food into their hand. Eventually, they will start to use their forefinger and thumb to do so. This is when many infants start to develop the pincer grasp, where they can pick up objects using their thumb and forefinger, a skill that becomes crucial as they explore self-feeding.
Continue to practice the skill of cup drinking (try to offer a variety of cups – open cups and straw cups are typically recommended by SLPs). If you have been offering mostly smooth purees up until this point, around the 8–9-month mark try to introduce a variety of textures. Try mashing foods versus blending them or make them thicker as this is crucial to help them learn to eat finger foods.
By this age, they are likely able to demonstrate “chewing” softer foods. If you want to do a “baby-led” approach to starting solids and you have already been offering some low-risk stick-shaped foods, you can start to also offer foods in bite-sized pieces. Ideally, the texture needs to be soft, and meltable and should not be a hard round object in order to continue to be safe for the baby. Babies can bring them to their mouths to explore and learn a variety of flavors. For example, grapes, super-soft carrot or sweet potato cubes, etc.
Some soft examples of delicious, organic and ready-to-eat meltables would be Little Bellies puffs for 7+ and 10+ months babies, easy for little fingers to hold and little mouths to devour.
You may see your little one poke food with their index finger and use their fingers to self-feed soft, chopped foods. At this age, you can start to cut food into bite-sized pieces. Don’t stress so much about the exact size, it can be around the size of a small dice, cheerio, chickpea or dime. Signs:
Don’t worry if some of the above milestones happen at different times. Missing a milestone at a certain age isn’t necessarily concerning. Consistent delays, however, might warrant further attention.
If you find feeding and meals are hard and seemingly stressful it may be important to take a step back and assess what is going on. Some potential red flags for feeding development include difficulty swallowing, gagging excessively, or persistent refusal of solid foods. Another red flag may be if your baby will not touch the food at all and is refusing to bring items to their mouth.
Consultation with a pediatrician or feeding specialist is advisable if the above issues persist or if parents have ongoing concerns about their baby’s feeding development. Early intervention in addressing feeding challenges is essential for a baby’s overall growth and well-being.
Several factors influence a baby’s feeding development milestones. Oral motor skills, the baby’s overall health, and sensory sensitivities are crucial considerations. These factors can impact a baby’s ability to suck, swallow, and digest different types of foods.
Instead of stressing about certain milestones, try to set yourself up for feeding success by creating a nurturing and supportive feeding environment. Minimising distractions during meal times and creating a calm atmosphere can help babies focus on their feeding experiences. As tough as it is, this means many pets may need to be kept away from the feeding area and we recommend TVs are turned off.
It is crucial to understand that babies learn through exploration and play, and they will do this with food! While the mess can be very frustrating, we encourage you to take a step back and see it through the lens as a necessary part of them learning to eat. A baby will likely not want to eat something in the future that they haven’t touched or explored with their senses. Touching food and tolerating it in their space is a step towards licking and tasting.
Pro tip: When you have the capacity to put up with the mess, you can spread mashed food or puree on their high chair tray and let them explore it!11
Research suggests that breastfeeding can have a positive impact on feeding development. Breast milk not only provides essential nutrients but also supports the development of oral muscles used in sucking, swallowing, and eventually managing thicker textures. Due to breast milk being dynamic and ever-changing to your babies’ nutrient needs it also varies in flavors. Which in theory may help them with flavor acceptance in the future. We understand that not everyone can or chooses to breastfeed and want to recognise that bottle-fed babies are also able to develop feeding skills. 5,6,7
We recommend you use the above as a general reference or guide to help you know what might be “coming up” with your little one developmentally. If you find tracking gives you peace of mind then you can use apps or journal their progress. We recommend that if you do this, make it fun so it does not add more stress to your already busy life. As you do this, if something seems off to you, these journals may help identify areas that may require extra attention or support by your child’s care team.5
We understand that everyone has access to different levels of support and education regarding feeding methods. Cultural backgrounds can significantly impact feeding practices and expectations. Families from diverse backgrounds may have different approaches to introducing solid foods, breastfeeding, and weaning. It’s truly important to find a feeding method that works for you. For example, with the rise of baby-led weaning approaches, this may be an approach that is either very new or untraditional for some families. Or it may be what is commonly done in your culture already.
It’s important to note that research does not indicate that starting a baby on purees will delay them. Or that offering finger foods is the “superior” feeding method. Both (when done safely) actually have the same risk for choking incidents, and when babies experience a variety of textures around the 8–10-month mark, they are considered in alignment with what is developmentally appropriate for feeding.
As parents navigate their baby’s feeding development journey, understanding and respecting these cultural differences can lead to more inclusive and supportive parenting practices.
The World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of culturally sensitive feeding guidance. This approach respects diverse practices while promoting optimal nutrition and feeding experiences for babies.7
Feeding development milestones are integral components of a baby’s growth and overall well-being. Understanding these milestones, respecting individual and cultural differences, and seeking support when needed can help parents navigate this remarkable journey.
Remember that every baby’s feeding development journey is unique. Trust your instincts as a parent and embrace the joy of nurturing your baby’s growth through their feeding experiences. Try not to compare your child to others or other children you may have. Know that eating solids is a skill that takes time to learn!
By staying informed, seeking guidance, and fostering a positive feeding environment, parents can confidently support their baby’s feeding development and lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating habits.
Author: Leah Hackney, RD, LD, CSP @kids.nutritionist
1.Barlow S. M. (2009). Central pattern generation involved in oral and respiratory control for feeding in the term infant. Current opinion in otolaryngology & head and neck surgery, 17(3), 187–193. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOO.0b013e32832b312a
3.Mennella, J. A., Jagnow, C. P., & Beauchamp, G. K. (2001). Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics, 107(6), E88. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.107.6.e88
4.Spahn, J. M., Callahan, E. H., Spill, M. K., Wong, Y. P., Benjamin-Neelon, S. E., Birch, L., Black, M. M., Cook, J. T., Faith, M. S., Mennella, J. A., & Casavale, K. O. (2019). Influence of maternal diet on flavor transfer to amniotic fluid and breast milk and children’s responses: a systematic review. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 109(Suppl_7), 1003S–1026S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy240
5.American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020). Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. Bantam.
6.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Infant and Toddler Nutrition. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/index.html
7.World Health Organization. (2022). Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals. Retrieved from: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/44117
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9.English, L. K., Obbagy, J. E., Wong, Y. P., Butte, N. F., Dewey, K. G., Fox, M. K., Greer, F. R., Krebs, N. F., Scanlon, K. S., & Stoody, E. E. (2019). Complementary feeding and developmental milestones: a systematic review. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 109(Suppl_7), 879S–889S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy321
10.Brown A. (2018). No difference in self-reported frequency of choking between infants introduced to solid foods using a baby-led weaning or traditional spoon-feeding approach. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics : the official journal of the British Dietetic Association, 31(4), 496–504. https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12528
11.Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., Hennessy, M. et al. Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 17, 2 (2020).