Playing With Food Benefits: Developing Fine & Gross Motor Skills

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Food is about nutrition as well as motor skills development.

At 3+ months of age, babies start kicking their legs and reaching for things while lying down. This helps strengthen their core muscles. At about 4 months, babies begin rolling and reaching for objects, which strengthens their back muscles. Strong core and back muscles help babies sit up and eventually walk. These skills are called gross motor skills.

The strength and stability of the core allow babies to practice and build fine motor skills like the pincer grasp, which requires coordination of many small muscles in their arms, wrists, hands and fingers.

Palmar Grasp

Somewhere between 4 and 6 months of age, you will see the palmar grip. This occurs when your baby instinctively attempts to seize an object placed in their hand. Imagine your baby clasping onto your finger upon sensing it in their palm. The thumb will not be involved in this action yet.

Raking Grasp

At 6-7 months of age, you will see the Raking Grasp. As your baby is reaching for things and trying to bring them closer, you will see a raking motion, hence the raking grasp. This marks the start of the self-feeding phase.

Crude Pincer Grasp

At 7 to 9 months of age, you will see an earlier version of the pincer grasp, often called inferior or crude pincer grasp. In this developmental stage, your baby is still using the pads of their fingers, not the tips, but now trying to reach and hold on to things with their pointer finger and thumb. This allows them to pick up and hold smaller foods, which helps promote self-feeding and independence.

Pincer Grasp

As the crude pincer grasp matures into a confident pincer grasp, you know your baby has reached an important development milestone. It is one of the fine motor skills and it could take 6-12 months to master. It’s quite complex: it requires a lot of hand-to-eye coordination for them to locate, reach, pick up and bring the desired object to their mouth. Picking up and holding small food objects forces them to leverage many small muscles in their hands and fingers.

A simple way to aid the development of a confident pincer grasp is playing with small-size foods and snacks like soft peas, carrot cubes or Little Bellies puffed snacks in the TASTY TEXTURES range for 7+ months babies.

Start with bigger pieces around 6 or 7 months of age, and make sure they are quick to melt in the mouth to avoid the risk of choking.

Consider using a mix of smaller and larger pieces. Small-size foods will help work their hand and finger muscles while the raking grasp will let them eat the larger pieces. With time, they will instinctively begin to use their index finger and thumb to pick up the food, thus using a pincer grasp.

Pincer Grasp is a building block for many future skills like holding a fork or a pencil. Hence it’s very important to master it and playing with food is one fun and natural way to do it.

Remember though that every baby has their own timeline and will develop their gross and fine motor skills at their own pace. Don’t worry or overthink this timeline. Don’t compare to other children. Some children take a little longer to develop a confident pincer grasp and that’s absolutely fine. Just let them be and have fun during the meal or snack times to practice the pincer grasp. If you’re worried about a delayed progression to pincer grasp, consult with a child development therapist. But also trust yourself and the natural process and enjoy being the parent!

Playing with Food Ideas for Babies and Toddlers from Simone Emery

7+ months babies

  • Eating with your baby can be difficult at night time when bedtime is approaching. So, make sure you have a cup of tea or something small to eat while they eat their dinner, so they aren’t eating alone. Sharing some Little Bellies sweetcorn round-a-bouts alongside vegetables and pasta is a great way to show them that foods aren’t divided into “your food” and “my food”. Even though routines and foods change, family meal times are always possible.
  • Sometimes children may clamp their mouths shut and refuse food. Stay positive and take this as a sign to present the food differently next time. If the food was offered on a spoon, try smearing some along the length of a Little Bellies pick-me stick and offer it on their tray next time. If the food was offered straight out of a packet to be eaten out of your hand, offer it in an open dish so that they can see it and touch it before putting it in their mouth. Familiarity and playing with food on their terms will boost their food confidence going forward.

10+ months babies

  • Breakfast is a superb opportunity to offer new foods to your family! Use breakfast as an opportunity to offer two or more food groups and some different food textures. Sprinkle Little Bellies Organic banana softcorn over a smoothie bowl for a delicious family-friendly breakfast. Frozen banana, coconut milk, blueberries and oats make a great smoothie bowl base for the whole family to enjoy.
  • Show your child that you enjoy playing with your food too. Playing is the highest form of learning. Touching your Little Bellies softcorn to your lips with a playful reaction elicits fun giggles, but also teaches them more vocabulary e.g., pointy vs straight, hot vs cold, wet vs dry. The more tangible vocabulary that children have about food, the less they will use ambiguous words like “yuck”, “nice” or “okay” later.

12+ months toddlers

  • Smearing some puree on as lipstick or as a moustache with Little Bellies tomato stick helps children learn spatial awareness and fine motor skills, and it challenges their tongue to reach around and gain strength when they need to lick it off. Try this exercise in front of a mirror at first (with some laughs of your own). It is a great way for parents to observe how their children are learning oral motor skills. Our tongue moves a great deal when we eat and exercises like this help improve oral motor skills.
  • Learning to eat multiple textures in a single mouthful requires refined oral motor skills. Even if your child is over 12 months old and has mastered some harder-to-chew foods, using a seed or nut butter spread on a Little Bellies animal cracker and topped with sultanas can extend their oral motor skills whilst using products and flavors that they are familiar with. 

With an extensive range of flavors, textures and shapes for every age, Little Bellies makes playing with food so much fun and so easy!

Read more about the role of playing with food in your child’s development in our next article Why is Playing with Food Important?

Photo by Sebastian Pandelache on Unsplash