Allison Jovanovich, MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist

Why are self-feeding skills important?

A child’s progression toward independent feeding requires a series of developmental sequences in oral motor and fine motor skills. In fact, this multifaceted task requires developmental skill in other areas as well including: gross motor, visual, cognitive, communicative, and emotional/ social development.

A child who is practicing and learning self-feeding skills is also improving:

  • Strength in his/her back, arms, and hands
  • Coordination in his/her arms and hands
  • Grasping patterns
  • Refining sensory processing skills
  • Oral motor skills
  • Overall independence

What are the appropriate milestones for using utensils to self-feed?

Table references: Case-Smith & O’Brien, 2010

Table references: Case-Smith & O’Brien, 2010

Can you share tips for parents who have a child that is struggling with using utensils and self-feeding?

A child with motor impairments may have had fewer opportunities than other children to manipulate a variety of toys, objects, or foods. Engaging a child in simple play to develop gross and fine motor skills is important for him/her to gain independence with self-feeding. Include the following toys, games, activities into a child’s day to help him/her practice and learn self-feeding skills:

  • Nesting toys of different sizes for filling, emptying, and pouring various sensory mediums (water, beans, rice, sand, etc.) from one to another
  • Cups, bowls, shovels or spoons for filling and emptying various sensory mediums (water, beans, rice, sand, etc.)
  • Pick-up cereal pieces from an ice cube tray
  • Use spoons to scoop marshmallows
  • Play with edible play dough – scooping, spearing, cutting, pinching with fingers
  • Pretend to feed a baby doll
  • Have imaginary tea parties, picnics, or meals
  • Spread frosting on cookies or gingerbread house
  • Start with cutting softer foods and then move toward tougher foods
  • Cut waffles – built in grid lines
  • Make a peanut or almond butter bird feeder

Learning self-feeding skills is a multi-sensory experience, so do not be surprised if your child becomes messy as he/she plays and learns. In fact, encouraging messy play will not only build the skills required for feeding, but also confidence and creativity.

How do you know when or if your child is ready/needs to see an occupational therapist?

All children develop and progress at their own pace.  The milestone charts provided above indicate the average age that a child is able to perform each skill listed. Some children may develop skills early and some later than the average age. If you are concerned about your child’s progress toward their developmental milestones in regard to self-feeding, please reach out to your child’s pediatrician. Sometimes if children are having difficulties with self-feeding, underlying issues are present. These may include, but are not limited to, delays in: oral motor, fine motor, gross motor, visual, cognitive, and sensory processing development. If feeding is the primary concern for your child, please speak with your physician about feeding therapy. Here at Special Kids, feeding therapy services are offered as part of both occupational therapy and speech therapy. All feeding therapists on staff are trained and knowledgeable in oral motor and sensory approaches to feeding therapy.

What to expect if your child does start occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy sessions are client-specific, meaning that the treating Occupational Therapist will provide interventions that best fit the needs of your child. If a child has difficulty with self-feeding, typically underlying deficits are also present. If your child qualifies to receive skilled occupational therapy services, he/she will most likely also be working on other areas of development as well as self-feeding. These include, but are not limited to: fine motor, gross motor, visual, cognitive, and sensory processing development.

Just like occupational therapy, feeding therapy sessions are also tailored to your child’s needs. For more information about feeding therapy, please refer to our blog post on the “SOS Feeding Approach”. This blog goes into more detail about how we can further assist your child in regard to feeding.

Resource: 

Case-Smith, J., O’Brien, J. (2010). Occupational therapy for children: Sixth edition. Maryland Heights: Elsevier.

Recommended References to Learn More:

References are for informational purposes only and they are not intended to replace physician and/or occupational therapy treatment(s).