The introduction of utensils and the mastery of eating with it is a developmental process just like sitting and crawling. For a lot of babies, this comes naturally, but some might need a little bit of help. I am hoping to shed some light on this topic for you.
Independent eating relies on abilities and develops in stages.
Abilities which are needed for independent eating:
- Chewing or moving food around in the mouth
- Swallowing and preparing for the next bite
- Full fist grip in order to finger feed and later hold a spoon
- Eye-hand coordination to get the spoon in the bowl
- Coordination to get the hand or spoon to the mouth
- Pincer grip for isolated finger feeding and holding a fork
The different stages of eating independently with utensils is as follows:
- Ability to maintain an upright sitting posture during meal time
- Tolerating textures and eating solid foods while being fed
- Ability to grasp utensils and use them appropriately during play
- Self-feeding with utensil while parent feeds most of the meal (spoon)
- Self-feeding with parent doing hand-over-hand guiding (spoon)
- Independent self-feeding of “sticky foods” like yogurts (spoon)
- Independent self-feeding of most foods (spoon)
- Self-feeding with utensils while parent feeds most of the meal (fork)
- Self-feeding with parent doing hand-over-hand guiding (fork)
- Independent self-feeding of “sticky foods” like yogurts (fork)
- Independent self-feeding of most foods (fork)
Facilitating independent eating:
When your baby is approximately 7 months old, they should be able to maintain an upright sitting posture during feeding times, even if this is supported. By the age of 8 months, you should be starting to introduce them to finger foods like puffs or soft biscuits. It is important to not always pass the food item to the child, but offer it on a flat surface like a plate. This facilitates the movement of the fingers as well as eye-hand coordination to pick the food item up. You will most likely notice that the baby will use raking movements with the fingers in order to move the food into the palm of the hand. This is known as the fist grip and is perfectly acceptable for initial finger feeding. I know this is messier than most mommies would prefer, but it is a vital step to independent eating. During this fist grip, the baby gets exposed to the texture of the food before placing it in the mouth leading to less fussy eaters. We do want to promote a pincer grasp for finger feeding and therefore, I would encourage that time is set aside at the beginning or middle of the meal where smaller pieces are being held in front of the child in order for them to start using isolated finger movements to take it from the parent. These isolated finger movements are the start to developing fine-motor skills.
By 8-10 months of age you baby might show interest in holding onto a spoon while you are feeding them. At this stage you may introduce them to their own “toddler approved” spoon. Do not expect much to happen when they are learning to grasp the spoon, but have their own spoon close by while you are still doing most of the feeding.
At 9-11 months of age, your baby should have mastered the art of finger feeding. They should become less messy and make use of the pincer grip most of the time. Now the fun and even messier part of developing begins… give them their own little bowl with a small amount of food in to practice eating. Expect this event to involve more food on the floor and less food in the mouth. I suggest not to expect that it will be a nutritious experience, but to view it more like an experiment and opportunity to develop for your child. If you notice that your child is struggling to grasp the concept of what needs to happen with this foreign object, place your hand over the child’s hand and guide the spoon into the food and then to the mouth. During these beginning stages it is important to use “sticky foods” in order to limit the frustration your child might feel, for example cubed butternut might fall off the spoon, but mash will stick better. It is also important to pay attention to the spoon you give to the child, for example a deeper spoon will retain more food compared to a flat spoon.
By the age of 15-18 months, toddlers are expected to be able to feed themselves different types of foods using a spoon. Now it is time to introduce them to a “toddler approved” fork. This fork can be more like a spork, in the sense that it can be rounded to hold more food and should have shorter prongs. Ensure that the fork you choose is able to poke the food as some plastic forks do not actually pierce the food without added pressure. The same hand-over-hand technique can be followed in order to facilitate the appropriate use of the fork. Initially present the fork and spoon during feeding time and allow your toddler to choose. Also offer food that would be easier to eat with a fork. After some exposure to eating with a fork and some practicing you can start to offer the appropriate utensil for the food that you decide to serve to your child.
The ideal is that your child should be independently eating with a spoon and a fork by the age of 2 years.
Introducing a knife can be done much later on, 4-5 years, as using a blunt knife for safety is often very frustrating for children as this type of knife does not cut the food effectively. To introduce a knife, I would suggest that you start by allowing the child to help in the kitchen by slicing and dicing cucumbers and tomatoes. A blunt knife can also be used during play to slice playdough. At this stage we want to facilitate the motion in which to use the knife i.e. a downwards pulling action. All of this happens with one hand supporting the item being cut and the other hand cutting. This will give them the opportunity to practice the skill using only the knife which will make it easier when they have to use the knife in conjunction with the fork later on when eating. Once again, allow for opportunity to practice the skill; use hand-over-hand technique and encourage positively.
Scraping food onto a fork with the knife only happens later on when the child learns to use both hands simultaneously in opposite directions.
Little tip: Children who observe their parents eating while using utensils often grasp the idea around eating with utensils faster than children who get fed away from the supper table.
If you have any queries please do not hesitate to contact me on 079 494 9669 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
B. OT (UFS)