Mess is essential for the kind of learning infant and toddlers like when learning to eat on their own. Self-feeding is part of the human drive to mastery and the abilities associated with eating on one’s own is associated with neurological development and appropriate weight gain. The child’s wish to grow and acquire their parents’ skills is balanced and framed by culture. Parents have to balance their child’s need to acquire food culture with the normal wish to keep chores to a minimum. Offering small portions and maximizing opportunities for modeling are two supportive ways to minimize mess. Infant and toddler tummies are the size of their fists.
The first sign of infant readiness for food is when they get excited and interested in your food. That interest may come as early as 4 months. Your pediatrician will let you how to proceed. Infants attain the ability grasp foods and a cup at around 6 months. Usually, finger feeding is linked to the ability to connect the index finger to the thumb. Self-spoon use begins around the 9th or 10th month. Typically-developing children completely self-feed by 15 months. That’s it, except for the mess. Parents have all the power they want to control the mess but children cannot be completely controlled. They need balance. Over-control leads children to refuse to eat or eat passively, eating only when fed by parents or while watching a video.
Sometimes, a child may have limited ability while showing the usual readiness cues. One day, a mother came in telling me about her underweight, two year old daughter who was resisting being fed. In this case, mother thought she had to feed her child because she had no hands! Mom’s grief and the future availability of prosthetics were discussed. Mother was advised to place the food in front of her child on the highchair and let her eat with her head leaning forward. Her child met her own developmental needs and ate well. Mother took the road mess travelled. This strong mother, at each meal, had to see her child’s resilience, weakness and, then, clean mess. Mother kept the strength and managed her own sadness instead of giving to her daughter.
A successful balance between control and creativity occurs in a scene from Ray, the Ray Charles. In this scene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4U8OhVXtnQA), the white music producer knows that he has the power of money, contract, production costs and race, which he must marry with the artist’s need for self-expression in order to score that hit. Meanwhile, the African American artist needs support to reach his buried ‘star power’ which is founded on the artist’s need for artistic expression. Ray’s musical messes get tolerated until the producer and Ray work to reach that creative balance. The producer is like us ‘good enough’ parents who want their child to develop. This pivotal encounter leads Ray Charles to his first hit, The Mess Around. How appropriate. Help your own star to shine at the table while he does the mess around.