Just as he has to learn any motor skills, your baby has to learn to use his hands and fingers to manipulate food into his mouth. He must learn to use his mouth, tongue, and jaw muscles to move food around in his mouth to get it to the back in order to swallow.
The Rake: At first he will use his fingers shaped like a rake to move food on his high chair tray closer to him. He will use the side of his hand—the pinky side of his hand—folded against the lower palm to scoop up bits of food. It will take practice for him to get the food into his mouth. Until his aim improves, food may miss his mouth and get mushed on his face instead. Be patient with the mess during this learning process.
The Palmer Grasp: At around 5 months, the palmer grasp develops. Now your baby will use her four fingers to fold food against palm. Her thumb is not yet used in the palmer grasp and sticks out like a sore thumb! By about 7 months, thumb opposition begins to develop and finger foods will be held against the palm by both the fingers and the thumb (radial-palmer grasp). At around 8-9 months, the fingertips, instead of the palm and fingers, begin to hold the food against the tip of the thumb (radial-digital grasp.)
The Pincer Grasp: Beginning sometime between 8 and 10 months, your baby will begin to use her index, ring, and pinky fingers against the lower thumb to grasp an object. This crude pincer grasp eventually develops into a neat pincer grasp, where index finger and thumb delicately meet to pick up a Cheerio® or other small object. This neat pincer grasp (also called the fine pincer grasp) usually develops around 12 months and allows baby to become very skilled at finger feeding.
Releasing: After grasping is accomplished, your baby will practice the skill of releasing. Yes, voluntarily releasing food is a skill that must be learned too! Remember that she is learning, and not trying to annoy you, when she endlessly practices opening her hand to release food—most of the time to the floor. When she looks down to see the food on the floor, she is learning object permanence—the understanding that objects out of sight still exist and do not disappear into thin air.
Now that you have been introduced to all the different ways your baby will self-feed, the next blog post will get to the good stuff – the food!