How to Teach Baby to Use Utensils

Learning to use a utensil can be tricky, for both kids, and their caregivers. You may find yourself asking a number of questions: Should I start with a fork or a spoon? Which utensil should I buy? When should I start introducing utensils to my child?

The CDC recommends introducing utensils to your baby between 10-12 months of age.

Take a deep breath, keep reading, and let me help you break it down.

Teach baby to use utensils

Where to start

As an occupational therapist (OT), I am trained to look at an activity, break down the activity into smaller steps, and analyze each part to understand what skills are necessary to complete the desired activity. So let’s analyze self-feeding with a utensil.

Self-feeding requires the following steps: the act of picking up a utensil, holding onto it, stabbing or scooping the food, and then bringing the food to your mouth. There are many skills involved in each step and all of those skills need to be used in harmony for successful utensil use.

When I present it like that, I hope you’re thinking: “That’s a whole lot of skill for a baby and a whole lot of pressure for me as a parent.” It is, but it’s not. So let me help make this information much more digestible.

Developmental skills required:

The activity of self-feeding requires 3 main skills:

  1. Fine motor coordination: the ability to use the small muscles in your hand and wrist to manipulate objects

  2. Hand-eye coordination: using your hands and sight to work together to reach and grasp for objects

  3. Hand strength: otherwise referred to as grip strength, is the ability of your hand and wrist muscles to use force to control objects in your hand

Trouble-shooting utensil use

If it seems like no matter how hard you try, your child is not interested in utensils and would prefer to use their hands, you are not alone. There are many different reasons why babies show little interest in utensils.

Maybe they are starving and using their hands is much quicker than using a utensil. Maybe their hands are not strong enough, maybe their eyes and hands are not coordinated yet, or maybe they haven’t had enough practice.

Whatever the reason is, I can assure you that utensil drills (aka working on this at every meal for every day of the week) is not the answer. As an OT I can tell you that you need to sneak in the “practice” rather than drill in the repetitions at every meal. 

What I mean by this is to work on those skills mentioned above during other parts of the day (ie. play time, bath time), and then try the utensil a few times a week until your baby is showing interest.

4 Tips to help your child foster the skills to self-feed with a utensil

Here are a few activities that you can create from everyday household products to promote the development of skills needed to independently use a utensil. Try incorporating these, or similar activities, into your weekly routine and watch your baby learn to enjoy using a utensil!

#1: Toy ice crush:

Toy Ice Crush game to encourage baby learn to use utensils

This is one of my favorite summertime activities. Literally no mess for parents, and ultimate fun for the kids.

All you need is a bowl, water, a kid hammer or drumstick, and your child's favorite “guys” as my kids call them (ie. dinos, Disney figurines, Happy Meal toys, etc. 

Simply fill a bowl with water and add in your favorite toys. Place into the freezer around dinner time. Once you get the kids to bed, check back and manipulate the toys to ensure there are toys within the entire bowl, not just the top or bottom. 

Let it sit overnight. Pop the large ice cube out on the grass, patio, sidewalk, or deck, and let the kids get hammering!!!

Whether you are rescuing princesses from ice castles or digging up dinosaur fossils, this activity will keep your little ones entertained and working hard for a while. This activity helps reinforce grasping and holding a cylindrical object and builds hand strength and endurance. And did I mention… NO mess!!!

#2 Ice cube snack tray

This is the ultimate OT hack. You can use an ice tray or an egg carton. Simply place your child's favorite snack, one in each “compartment”, and watch babies fingers come alive!

My kids love blueberries, but oftentimes I watch them rake up more than one with their hands and shove them into their mouths. The ice tray forces the child to utilize 2 or 3 three fingers to grasp the berry which naturally decreases raking and reinforces the neat pincer grasp we want to see young children have.

#3 Playing with tissue boxes

Playing with tissue boxes with baby

Save those tissue boxes for a rainy day! This activity costs less than $1.50 and will provide entertainment for hours. Babies love hide and seek play and a tissue box is a great way to use this play scheme while promoting hand development.

This game is so easy. Drop a favorite car, animal, puzzle piece, or small common household object, such as a chip clip, inside the tissue box. Play with your baby by saying “Uh oh, where did it go?” 

Then, encourage your baby to reach their hand inside the box to find the object and take it out. And voila! Grasp, strength, and coordination practice; check check check!!! How easy is that?

#4 The dreaded sensory bins

Tips and Tricks for playing sensory bins

I said it. And let me remind you, I am an OT. I 100% understand, acknowledge, and utilize the use of sensory bins in my everyday practice. However, I’m also a mom, and I dread the mess that these “bins” leave behind in my personal home.

I also know how important texture exploration is to babies development, but I know how tired I am, and the thought of a self-induced mess makes me want to throw in the towel.

Here are some Mom approved tips and tricks for sensory bins to help babies explore different textures to gain those skills required for self-feeding with a utensil, without the anxiety of the mess or the mouthing of non-food items.

Tips and tricks:

  1. Only use edible materials. Save yourself the heart attack. Only use textures that are safe for your baby to eat. Examples: cooked pasta, crushed up cheerios, water play, yogurt. Steer clear from poms poms, raw rice, raw pasta, and other non edible objects until the age of 2.

  2. You do not need a 5-gallon bin. A medium sized mixing bowl will work fine. The idea is that the baby can use two hands to explore the texture and objects, therefore any bin/bowl/box that is about 12 inches will suffice.

  3. Load up your bin/bowl and take it OUTSIDE if you can. If you can’t be outside, lay down a garbage bag with painter's5-gallon tape and have your baby play there.

  4. Make your life easier, not harder. Use the bins during meal time!! If chicken is on the menu, boil up some elbows, and let your baby sift through the elbows to get to the chicken. Bam! Sensory play. If rice is the main event of the meal, bury some cheerios inside for an added element of surprise to keep babies interest.

Tying it all together

After you have tried the activities and helped your baby gain the skills needed to self-feed with a utensil, the last step is to put all your (caregiver and baby) hard work to the test!

Using the busy baby bib will make this trial fool proof. Baby will have access to two of the same or different utensils, missed attempts will be caught by the bib, and when the utensils go flying (because if you know, you know) the tether system won't’ let them get far, and baby can retrieve the utensil independently to try again.

And remember, when starting out using a utensil, use motivating foods first, and be on the lookout for signs of frustration. Don’t force it. Go back to the basics that I mentioned above and strengthen those skills needed to get the job done. You’ve got this!

Kelly Sullivan

Kelly Sullivan

Kelly  is an occupational therapist with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a mom to three young boys: Jake (age 4) and Tyler and Ryan (age 15 months). With that being said, she is passionate about child development and making families' everyday lives less stressful and more fun!

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