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From Fingers to Fork

It's 6 PM and you've spent the last 15 minutes spooning yogurt and applesauce into your toddler's mouth. When will she be able to feed herself?

By 12 to 14 months, most kids have the fine motor skills needed to grasp a spoon, the large motor skills required to scoop up food and bring it toward their mouth, and the hand-eye coordination to hit their target (well, most of the time). At around 18 months they're ready to use a toddler fork.

To start a little eater on utensils:

Make Dinnertime Playtime

While you feed her with one spoon, offer her another one to manipulate and practice putting into her mouth. Don't be surprised if she grips it with her fist. Most kids aren't capable of an adult grasp, which utilizes the thumb and index finger, until age 3 or 4.

Give Her a Hand

Once your toddler begins to grab the spoon out of your hand, she's ready to try feeding herself. Put a small amount of food on her spoon and hand it to her. (Start with a thick substance, like pudding, which will cling to the utensil.) At first she may spill, but after a few tries she'll get some in her mouth. If she flings the spoon across the room or drops it onto the high-chair tray, try again in a week, when she may be more interested.

Put It All Together

Place a bowl of food in front of her, give her a spoon, and let her make the journey from dish to mouth. To minimize messes, keep the portion small, adding more when she's finished.

As she becomes more skilled, increase the amount of food from the outset. By 22 months, she should be able to feed herself entire portions, says Peggy Shecket, a parenting program coordinator at Grant/Riverside Methodist Hospitals, in Columbus, Ohio.

Time for Tines

As soon as your toddler is doing most of her spoon-feeding by herself, introduce a toddler fork. Its short, rounded prongs will minimize injury should she accidentally poke herself (or you). Wait until she's at least 4 to let her use an adult fork.

Place a few bite-size morsels of something easy to pierce  -- such as banana or a soft, cooked vegetable  -- directly on the high-chair tray and let her try to stab them. "At first the food may fall off  -- or go shooting to the other side of the kitchen  -- but after a few attempts she'll get at least some of it on the prongs," says Kim Gomez, an occupational therapist at Children's Medical Center of Dallas. Then all she'll need is some practice.

But even once your child has mastered the basics of the spoon and fork, the "utensil" she likes best may be her hands. "Kids find it fun to finger-feed," says Shecket. "As they get older, they'll enjoy using 'tools' just as much  -- they'll relish the sense of accomplishment it gives them."

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