Feeding and Swallowing Milestones for Toddlers (1 to 3 Years Old)

Plenty of exciting milestones happen during the second and third years of your child’s life. This time is a period of rapid growth, maturity, and brain development. So it’s not surprising to see changes in what and how your toddler eats and drinks as they grow. 

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) recently released new feeding and swallowing milestones. We’re here to break down what this information means and why it’s important to know. Plus, we’ll share expert tips on teaching your toddler to use an open cup, helping them try new foods, and signs that your toddler might have a feeding problem.

Feeding and swallowing milestones for toddlers

12 to 18 months

A 12- to 18-month-old toddler can typically feed themself a variety of foods, with a variety of consistencies, using utensils and their fingers. They likely drink from a sippy cup without help. They are gaining more control over their tongue muscles, allowing them to move food from side to side in their mouth.

Your young toddler is still practicing drinking from an open cup (spills to be expected!), but they are likely to master straw drinking! Check out our expert tips for teaching your toddler to use an open cup here.

18 to 24 months

Your 18- to 24-month-old toddler continues to refine their skills. They’re getting better at drinking from an open cup without spilling. Because their tongue moves food from side to side, they’re likely chewing on both sides of their mouth consistently. You’ll notice your toddler moving food around their mouth, chewing, and swallowing with more precision and fewer spills. Phew!

A toddler’s diet typically continues to expand, including foods that require lots of chewing, like chicken breast. But you’ll likely have to cut more challenging foods into smaller pieces. This helps to reduce the risk of choking. 

2 to 3 years

Two- and 3-year-old toddlers typically self-feed using forks and spoons. They can chew all foods and drink from an open cup without spilling. It is recommended to offer your child a variety of foods and textures, but avoid things that increase the risk of choking, like popcorn, hot dogs, nuts, and grapes.  

Picky eating can also develop during this time. That’s because a toddler’s rate of growth significantly slows after they turn 2, meaning they’re more likely to fill up on smaller amounts of food. While this is often considered developmentally appropriate between the ages of 2 and 4, it’s helpful to know what to look out for, when help might be needed, and how to encourage your child to try new foods

3 ways to help your toddler with eating

1 Teach them about hunger cues

In general, it’s always a good idea to help your child listen to their body and their hunger cues. You can do this by using positive language that reinforces and models this for them. Here’s an example: “If your tummy is feeling full right now, you can take a break. I’ll leave your food here for whenever you’re hungry again.”

2 Offer a variety of foods

Give your child lots of chances to try foods, even if it seems like they don’t like it the first time. It can take more than 10 times for your child to decide they like a food. 

3 Have fun with food

Play is how children learn and explore the world around them. Try exposing your child to new foods in different and exciting ways, like having a picnic at the park or fingerpainting with yogurt.

When should I be concerned about my toddler’s eating?

As we’ve discussed, toddlers typically eat and drink a variety of foods using spoons, forks, and open cups or straws. They do this without signs of aspiration, which is defined as food or liquid entering the airway or lungs.

If your child has any issues with feeding or swallowing, you might notice these signs:

  • Your toddler may not want to eat a variety of foods or food textures.

  • They may struggle to feed themselves with utensils or drink from a cup and straw.

  • They may become frustrated while trying to eat.

  • Your child might cough or choke while eating. They may have a red face, facial grimacing, watery eyes, and/or fever after eating.

You know your child best. If you’re concerned about their feeding or swallowing skills, talk with your pediatrician. You can also take our easy online speech, language, and feeding quiz to determine if your child could benefit from a feeding and swallowing evaluation. There are speech therapists who specialize in pediatric feeding, helping children who have difficulty with the physical act of eating and/or swallowing.

Trust your instincts and reach out if you think your child might need support. Getting help early on is important!

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