As a frazzled parent, you are probably pretty motivated to teach your child to feed him or herself—if for no other reason than to give you a chance to enjoy your own meal again. But the motivation goes beyond having a nice, relaxing dinner. Utensil use is a practical way to help your child develop early fine motor skills. Using utensils to eat can even help prepare your child to write.
Mastering the Grasp
Children need to acquire finger dexterity and strength along with hand-eye coordination. Mastering that all-important pincer grasp, where they isolate their finger and thumb, is important groundwork for many other skills they will use continually. The pincer grasp represents the coordination of brain and muscles that’s necessary to help them gain increasing independence. Utensil use doesn’t necessarily require a mature pincer grasp (at least not in the initial stages of holding a utensil), but it is a skill that is still very important for self-feeding and more advanced grasping. This may sound daunting, but kids will pick up most of these skills just through repeating daily activities. And, they will have a chance to practice at every meal.
Get Food to Mouth
To master the idea of utensil use, your child has to first understand the concept of moving food from the table to their mouth. Kids will usually start feeding themselves by using a raking motion to scoop food toward them, curling their fingers toward their palm. In these early stages, you can help them develop their pincer grasp when you start their meal by giving them a few individual pieces of food—like a puff or piece of banana—on their tray. Or hold one piece at a time out to them and don’t let go until they grasp it with their index finger and thumb. They should pick this skill up relatively quickly over several days, but it’s best to only practice this skill for a few minutes at the beginning of a meal. You don’t want them to get too frustrated while they are learning.
One fun way you can help your child with the utensil to mouth concept early on is to playfully touch around your child’s face and mouth (like cheeks or nose) with a spoonful of food. Often, your kid will turn toward the spoon and reach up to help grab it and then, they will try to bring the spoon into their mouth.
Bringing a spoon to their mouth requires a child to develop the same skills as for bringing toys to their mouth, so it is appropriate (and beneficial) for young children to bring toys, hands, feet (pretty much everything) to their mouths. If a child isn’t “mouthing” items it can be a red flag for underlying developmental and/or sensory delays. If you are worried about your child mastering this step, it would be appropriate to bring it up with the child’s doctor and/or an early intervention service.
Try Out a Spoon
The next step is introducing a spoon. At first, you can give them their own spoon to hold while you are feeding them so they will start to associate a spoon to eating. Foods that will stick to the spoon are great to learn with. Think mashed sweet potatoes or oatmeal. They may even try to put the spoon to their mouth, so give them lots of praise if they try this on their own.
You can give them their own bowl with a little food in it and see if they will try using it on their own. You can use two bowl for a while, giving them more and more food to eat on their own and feeding them less and less. Eventually, you can move to having only their bowl and helping them occasionally. Most kids will start to pick this up themselves, but if your child seems especially frustrated with self-feeding, you could help by putting your hand on top of their hand and moving food into their mouth together. Be sure to let them try on their own too, and keep it positive and fun.
If your child is not excited or interested in self-feeding (and they are at an age where it is expected) you can try a variety of spoons or other utensils. Sometimes the grip of a certain spoon isn’t comfortable to your child, so trying different spoons could help. You can get creative too. You could try supervising your child with toothpicks, popsicle sticks, straws, or even different foods as utensils, for example, string cheese or crackers. Sometimes simply switching up the utensil your child is using can make a world of difference.
Move On to a Fork
Once they have spoon-feeding down, you can introduce a safe toddler fork. The best toddler forks have soft, wide gripped handles with flat-tipped, metal tines to allow for stabbing. Place the fork on their tray with a few pieces of easy-to-poke food, like a chicken nugget or cube of soft cheese. If spearing gets frustrating, you can help them for a while like you did with the spoon.
With any of these new skills, don’t feel like you need to step in too quickly to help. Your child needs some time to learn at their own pace.
Embrace a Messy Situation
Things are going to get grimy, and you are going to have to be okay with that for a while. Otherwise, you’ll be playing a never-ending, crazy-making cleaning game. To make the inevitable mess more manageable, try using a floor mat under their chair and opt for a bib with a deep pocket to catch the food that escapes their spoon. Another trick is to only give them a small amount of food in their bowl at a time. And, suction bowls that stick to the table can help you avoid most of the predictable bowl-throwing incidents.
Keep in mind that playing with food and making a mess is all part of the process. If you get overly anxious about messes—and over vigilant about wiping your child’s face—you could inadvertently cause (or add to) tactile defensiveness and food aversions. The tactile stimulation your child gets from playing in messy textures gives them important feedback they can process and develop more sophisticated responses to. Your toddler will actively seek out these experiences as part of curiosity, discovery, and exploration.
And, keeping mealtime positive will go a long way. If you are constantly fighting to keep your kid from grabbing the spoon or trying to pin them down to wipe their face after each bite, mealtime might not feel very positive to your child.
For a reprieve from the mess that won’t inhibit sensory experiences, you could practice with imaginary food during playtime to help your child understand the concept. Try pretending to feed dolls or animals and give your child a lot of praise when they start mastering the spoon-to-mouth idea.
The good news is that the really messy stage is usually pretty short lived.
Written by Annie Buck, OT
Annie Buck is an Occupational Therapist with Kids Who Count. She specializes in helping children with feeding and sensory delays. She lives in a houseful of boys. She and her husband have four sons, from 8-months-old to 7-years-old. Things are always loud at home with fun that usually involves someone wrestling someone else.