If you’re hoping to put an end to the smash-and-grab raid that marks baby mealtimes, you need to make sure that your little one is developmentally ready for it. Mastering a fork may not seem like a big milestone, but your toddler needs to get to grips with a whole host of essential skills before she can move on from sticky fingers to cutlery, including hand-eye co-ordination, body stability and stamina and visual perception. And you thought it was easy.
All this means that learning to eat with cutlery will be a gradual process for your toddler, so don’t pile the pressure on, and be realistic about what she can achieve: a silver service standard of knife and fork action won’t emerge straight away.
Start with spoons
Somewhere around nine to 14 months, your baby should be ready for her first attempts at independent scooping and self-feeding. That means starting her first with a spoon, as it’s the easiest for her to load up with food and move to her mouth with minimal spillage (well, that's the theory).
At first, a good way to do this is to use two spoons. Give her one to hold and practise with, while you feed her with the other. You can also try loading a spoon and then passing it to her so she can attempt to get it into her mouth – sticky foods like porridge and mashed potato work well. Make sure she has a ready supply of finger food too, so she doesn't get frustrated if she keeps missing her mouth.
Getting used to a fork
Once she’s got the hang of self-feeding using a spoon, you can think about introducing a fork for stabbing and spearing food to use together with the spoon. Most toddlers will be able to have a go at this from around 18 months to two years onwards, but expect her still to use her fingers too, both to hold food still so she can spear it and to shovel it straight into her mouth if using the fork proves too slow.
Introducing a knife
Knives are pretty tricky to master for toddlers so introduce them gradually. At first, encourage her to use it with soft foods like scrambled egg or mashed potato. To give you some idea of how gradual a process this is, if she makes her first attempts at using a knife at around two and a half, your child will probably just about be able to hold her food still with a fork so she can chop it with a knife by the time she's around four years old, and you’ll probably be cutting up tricky foods like meat even beyond that point.
Always use special toddler knives, as even normal table knives could cut your child’s mouth if she licks or chews them – which she’s bound to try at some stage. Also, get her to help you with kitchen chores that will give her a chance to practice her knife skills, such as buttering bread or chopping soft foods like mushrooms.
Choosing child-friendly cutlery
As with any major project, it’s vital to pick the right tools for the job. Choose cutlery that’s suitable for your child’s age – there’s a great range of fun and friendly designs out there to encourage her, and some have handy ergonomic features like wide handles or ridged grips to help her eat more easily.
You can also help her get the hang of using cutlery away from the tabletop, with a range of activities to boost her manual dexterity. This could include a spot of play dough cooking (a great way to practice cutting, spearing and chopping with the benefit of no washing up) as well as digging and scooping in a sandpit, or playing with jigsaws or construction bricks.
Always remember that learning to use cutlery, as with any skill, can vary widely from child to child, so be patient and be prepared for plenty of mess along the way.