By age 2, your toddler should have at least six months of on-the-job-training using a spoon, fork and plastic cup. Self-feeding requires fine motor skills that gradually improve over time. Of course, just because your toddler is able to eat on his own doesn't mean he's perfected his table manners to the point of being ready to dine with the Queen of England. Your toddler will probably be an untidy eater for awhile as he continues to refine his small motor skills through lots of practice.
1. Fingers-Only Self-Feeding
Fingers-only self-feeding provides a fun and easy way for a child to feel and become acquainted with various textures. It also helps him develop the small muscle movements that make up the fine motor skills he'll use every day. For example, learning to manipulate slippery foods like cooked noodles gives him the skills he'll need to grasp onto a wet railing on a rainy day. Handling spongy foods like angel food cake will make your life easier down the road when you ask your future teen to wash the car!
2. Introducing Utensils
Cups with handles, child-sized spoons and forks and bowls that attach to the highchair tray or table can help your tot make the transition from sloppy finger eater to a (relatively speaking) well-mannered diner as she perfects fine motor development with spoons and forks. Self-feeding with forks and spoons encourages further refinement of your tot’s fine motor skills because her hands, arms and back are strengthened by firmly grasping her utensils. Navigating food to her mouth also improves her hand-eye coordination over time. The fine motor skills that are developed with the regular use of eating utensils extend to many other toddler tasks, like using a pencil, coloring with crayons, building block towers and emptying items from containers.
3. Speaking Skills
The face and mouth muscles used to eat get a good workout as your toddler adds more textured foods to his favorite softies like yogurt and pudding, explains Better Brains for Babies, a website published by the University of Georgia. These same muscles are also important in the development of your little one's speech development. When your child works to get food to his mouth, and then to chew and swallow it, he's strengthening the muscles needed to communicate with those around him.
Fine motor development through self feeding will help your toddler perform increasingly advanced tasks in the time leading up to preschooler and kindergarten. Small motor skills are necessary for your little one to dress and undress herself, turn books a page at a time, ride a tricycle, manipulate tiny objects and brush her own teeth. Fine motor skills are also needed to tie shoes. Cheer your toddler on as her self-feeding skills improve. Knowing that she is building a solid foundation for future small motor jobs may help you keep your sense of humor when your little one gleefully shows off her new found coordination by swinging a spaghetti noodle like a lasso.
- HealthyChildren.org: Self-Feeding
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Toddler Nutrition
- University of Minnesota Extension: Ways to Encourage Self-Help Skills in Children
- ValleyPBS.org: Ready to Learn - Table Skills
- Superduperinc.com: Guidelines for the Development of Self-Feeding Skills
- KidsHealth.org: Face Muscles
- Mayo Clinic.com: Child Development Charts
- John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images