Learning at the Table: Meal Time and Motor Skills

From the very first time your baby starts to eat solid baby food, a new opportunity is created to learn and practice new and important motor skills. Meal time isn’t just about eating! It’s also an important part of your child’s development.

Starting Early

Even though your baby is nowhere near ready to feed himself when he first starts on solid foods, there is no reason you can’t let him have his own spoon right from the start. Bring two spoons to each feeding, one for baby to hold and one for you to feed him. Soon he will start trying to imitate what you are doing with the spoon, dipping it into the food and bringing it to his mouth. It will be messy, but your baby is laying the foundation for feeding himself while learning new motor skills.

Finger Foods

Somewhere around 8 months old on average, your baby will be ready to start self-feeding in earnest. The right place to start is with finger foods that dissolve easily in the mouth but are fairly easy to pick up. Small chunks of banana or the classic baby snack, Cheerios cereal, are great choices for first finger foods. Using the thumb and forefinger to pick up small items, also known as the “pincer grasp” is an important milestone and finger foods will help to develop the fine motor skills required.

The Right Tools for the Job

When your baby is ready to really use utensils, she will need her own fork and spoon. Look for utensils with thick, easy to grasp handles made of a non-slip material. Plastic forks are good for early practice, but they will soon frustrate your little one as they don’t work very well. Instead, look for a metal fork with rounded tines to avoid potential injury, but enough of a point to allow easy spearing of food. When choosing a spoon, try to find one that is not too flat and won’t spill easily. Utensils should be short, as anything too long will be difficult for little arms to maneuver.

Getting Started with Utensils

Learning to use a fork and spoon are a great chance to work on manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Although the spoon is the first utensil a baby encounters, most children will learn to use a fork faster, mainly because the food stays on the fork more easily than on a spoon. Start with an easy to spear food like small pieces of melon or pear. Place the fork in your child’s hand and guide her through the motions of spearing the food, and bringing it up to her mouth. You’ll be rewarded by the sight of her face lighting up with joy as she realizes she can eat just like you do!

Using a spoon requires even more skill than a fork. Learning the scooping and lifting motion to get food onto the spoon, and then the careful balance required to get the food all the way to the mouth are difficult tasks. Thick foods like oatmeal and yogurt are a great choice for learning this skill, as they will be less likely to spill off the spoon. Encourage your child to lean forward, towards the dish so that the spoon doesn’t need to travel so far.

The process of teaching your baby to self-feed can be messy, but remember that you are developing motor skills and life skills too!

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