Here’s something I’ve always felt made sense: Babies allowed to wean themselves to finger foods when they’re ready are less likely to become obese than those who continue to be exclusively spoon-fed. The simple explanation: it’s easier to learn to quit eating when you’re full if you’re the one controlling the feeding. In my experience the finger feeding phase arrives between 6 and 12 months, right at the age babies start fighting spoon feedings. (They must be reading the studies!)
Fear of choking is the concern I hear most often from parents leery of letting their babies finger feed themselves. But think of the foods typically offered as finger foods: cereal puffs, cheese, soft-cooked peas and carrots, and such. These are nearly impossible to choke on, since they quickly stick to saliva (and hair, and eyelashes, and nostrils, etc.). I challenge you – put a Cheerio in your mouth and try, try to inhale it and choke on it. You can’t, and neither can your baby.
The dangerous foods are slippery ones. Every year the leading causes of choking deaths from food are hot-dog chunks (with the skin all the way around) and whole grapes. (This usually happens to toddlers, who can grab food for themselves, and not infants, who eat what they’re given.) This is because the skin or peel makes it easy for the food object to slide to the back of the throat and block the windpipe.
Keep in mind, too, that choking and gagging are actually two very different things. Choking occurs when a solid object blocks the flow of air through the windpipe. Gagging moves food forward and away from the windpipe, and so actually protects babies from choking. It’s a good idea to take an infant CPR course so you’ll know the difference and be prepared in case of a real emergency. Most local hospitals and Red Cross chapters offer such classes.
Still, if your baby gags easily, go easy on the finger foods until a bit later. You want mealtime to be positive, and as we all have experienced at one time or another, gagging is not a pleasant sensation. The easy-gagger phase will pass in time.
In the meantime, on to finger feeding (and a jumbo under-the-high-chair ‘splat mat’!)