If you’re more nervous about your child starting school than they are, listen up. The first day of school marks a big transition and, let’s face it, we’ll take all the help we can get. With this in mind, we’re sharing three blog posts – in collaboration with the team at Gateway Therapies – in a series called, ‘Get Prepped for School’. In this part (Part Two) we’re chatting about how you can help your child develop the self-feeding skills that they’ll need to have down pat before school starts.
There are a number of obvious reasons why our kids should learn to feed themselves independently. In the physical sense, it allows them to get the nutrients that their bodies need to thrive, helping them to grow, learn and play. But there are also emotional and developmental benefits that come about when a child learns to feed themselves without any adult help – the sense of achievement that comes when they are intrinsically motivated to self-feed is amazing, and can help them thrive mentally, too.
But what should you do when your child isn’t motivated or able to feed themselves? Frustratingly, this is the case for a lot of parents, and can be stressful if they’re set to start school in the near future.
Claire, a Speech and Language Pathologist from Gateway Therapies, says that while self-feeding doesn’t come naturally to some children, there are ways that parents can help them develop these valuable life skills.
“Learning coordination and practising the necessary movements, refining fine motor and utensil use, managing the size of their mouthfuls, feeling in control at mealtime and making choices of what and how much to eat are just some of the benefits of self-feeding,” says Claire. “However, when children get tired at the end of the day or before nap-time, sometimes they can be reluctant to self-feed.”
As such, choosing appropriate times of the day to practice self-feeding is important for success, as is considering a combination of self-feeding and parent-feeding, which may be helpful to ensure adequate intake whilst your child’s skills are developing.
“A good way to start the transition, which may be a lengthy process, can be providing your child with their own spoon to have a go, whilst you continue to feed them with another spoon at the same time,” Claire says.
Flat-bowled – rather than deep-bowled – spoons are best for small mouths, Claire adds, as less lip clearance is needed. Claire also recommends using bowls, cups and utensils that are of a good quality and won’t crack or chip, which could hurt your child’s mouth or even cause a choking hazard.
Transitioning into open-cup drinking is critical for the maturation of swallowing skills, and can reduce the risk of some speech difficulties. Claire explains that moving children off sippy cups is an often forgotten part of feeding, especially when parents focus on trying to avoid spills and messes or just use on-the-go drink bottles.
“My top tip?” says Claire. “Embrace the mess, smears and spills as good quality learning! Use a mat under the highchair if mess worries you, but remember that food and drink mess won’t last forever. The sensory and problem-solving opportunities you’re providing your child with by teaching them to self-feed are invaluable.”
Steph, an Occupational Therapist with Gateway Therapies, says children can practice the skills required for self-feeding in a number of ways.
“I really encourage families to increase and encourage fine motor dexterity – which is the ability to manipulate small objects – in their child’s hands,” Steph says. “Encourage your child to play with playdough, buttons, threading, squeezing activities and just get hands on with craft activities to develop those fine motor skills.”
Modelling is also essential, Steph says, so get your family to sit down and have a meal together, as it will allow your child to see and get involved in self-feeding.
Also, have meal time boundaries and expectations – minimise distractions like TVs and iPads in the environment at dinner time, and ensure children are in a proper seating position, whether it’s a high chair or a supported chair, and aren’t wandering around or standing up.
“Positive encouragement is vital, so give your child time to develop and grow,” says Steph. “If you’re just starting self-feeding, it’s great to start with sticky food like oats and yoghurt that are easy to spoon and feed themselves. And don’t worry about the mess – as long as your child is giving it a go, just roll with it!”
BENEFITS OF BENTO BOXES FOR SELF-FEEDING
As an OT who specialises in Autism, Steph says that sometimes children on the spectrum don’t like soggy food or to have their foods touching, so it’s really awesome to have a lunchbox like Yumbox to allow easy food separation.
“Bento style boxes are so great for building fine motor skills, as they encourage the child to reach down and select their food with their fingers,” Steph says.