Holding a spoon or fork isn’t an intuitive skill for children. Neither is assisting another person, of any age, to self-feed. Parents really have struggled with this issue, and there must be many more out there who are struggling still. This post is intended to help both parties be more successful.
Young children use a “gross” or fisted grasp to hold a utensil; see the photo above. This continues until 3-4 years of age, when they have the hand strength and dexterity to use a mature grasp that incorporates the fingertips and thumb:
Trying to force a toddler to use a mature grasp is almost impossible, and allowing a toddler to use an atypical grasp is also unacceptable. It is inefficient and frustrating. The amount of spillage almost always makes parents decide to feed a child that should be learning to feed themselves.
Parents need to teach utensil grasp, and support it with the right tools and assistance until self-feeding becomes easy and natural to a child. Here is how to make that happen:
- Have the right tools. Once a child is old enough to try to self-feed, they need toddler utensils. Adult utensils have thinner, longer shafts. This makes it much more difficult to hold. Not impossible, just harder. Make life easier on both of you and invest in toddler spoons and forks. Infant feeding spoons have a tiny bowl and a very long shaft. That is because they help scoop food from a jar and reach a baby’s mouth: adults are the intended users! Do not give them to your toddler. They are harder for toddlers to use. Shallow plastic bowls with a non-skid base are very helpful. OXO sells the best bowls for this purpose, and since they are well-designed, you don’t have to get rid of them as kids get older. They will be attractive and useful for years to come.
- Provide the right assistance. In the very beginning, I encourage parents to load a fork with a safe food such as a cooked piece of carrot. Food on a fork doesn’t fall off as easily. They place the fork in the child’s hand and assist them in bringing it to their mouth. Adults need to “steer” the utensil until a child develops the motor control sequence to successfully get food on the utensil. Parents should be holding the end of the handle so that the child can place their hand in the center of the handle shaft. Children will grasp the end of the spoon if the parent uses any other hand placement. Young children will not automatically hold a utensil correctly. It is the parent’s job to know how to present the utensil for grasp.
- Make it fun. Feeding shouldn’t be difficult or unpleasant. I wrote a popular post on the best way to make learning to use utensils enjoyable Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child . This works even with children with ASD and SPD. In fact, it might be the best way to get kids with these diagnoses to learn to use utensils. There is an opportunity to develop social skills and turn a daily living skill into a fun game!