Have you heard about the pincer grasp yet? The pincer grasp is an important developmental milestone for your baby! But just what is it and why should you care?
Your baby developing the pincer grasp is one of the important milestones that many people recommend using to determine the size of food that your baby should be eating.
You’ll often hear that if your baby has the pincer grip down, that they can move on to small food items. This is most often the case in traditional weaning when purees are used. But I also hear it a lot with baby led weaning.
The pincer grasp is a building block for many future skills, like writing and holding a pencil. It’s an important skill for babies to master!
What Is the Pincer Grasp?
The pincer grasp is one of the fine motor skills your baby is working on mastering between 6-12 months of age, give or take a few months.
You might recognize it in the form of babies starting to pick up something like an “O” cereal with their thumb and pointer finger.
It is a way for them to start to pick up smaller objects. And while it may seem simple on the surface, it is actually the culmination of a lot of fine motor development!
It takes a lot of hand-eye coordination for them to get their hand and fingers to the object. And then even more get it to their mouth. Actually picking those small objects up between their two fingers activates a lot of small muscles in their hands.
Steps to Developing the Pincer Grasp
When your baby was younger, they had a much more primitive grasp. From birth, your baby has what is known as the palmar grasp reflex. This is when your baby will reflexively grasp something that is placed in their hand.
Think of your baby grasping your finger when they feel it in their palm.
As they get more practice in the world, their grasp patterns mature. (Ref)
You will start to see their grasp reflex disappear, usually by around 4 months. Then, gripping and releasing objects becomes much more intentional.
The Palmar Grasp
You will start to see the palmar grasp appear around 4-6 months of age. The palmar grasp is when your baby is gripping something in the palm of their hand with their fingers wrapped around it. This won’t involve the thumb.
The Raking Grasp
Your child will go through many different grasps on their way to developing the pincer grasp.
One of the more obvious ones is when they start to use a raking grasp. This is when they use a raking motion to bring things towards them and pick them up. You will see this one very frequently in many 6 and 7 month olds at the beginning of self-feeding.
Inferior Pincer Grasp
Around that 7 to 9 month mark, you will usually start to see the inferior pincer grasp appear. This can also be referred to as a crude pincer grasp. It is when your baby is using their thumb and pointer finger, but instead of using the tips of their fingers, they use the pads of them.
From a feeding stand point, this really does function as a pincer grasp. It allows them to pick up smaller foods much easier than a raking motion and palmar grasp does.
As they continue to practice this important fine motor skill, they will refine their grasp until they have a mature pincer grasp down.
How to Help Your Baby Develop a Strong Pincer Grasp
Many people have recommendations out there for small toys and activities. The often use little things that you can find to help your child develop a good pincer grasp. Many of these activities often focus on soft objects like pom poms.
While these can be a great way to encourage development of new skills in your young child, I often encourage a much more hands off and simple way of helping your child.
One of my favorite ways is simply to use smaller foods!
Practicing Your Baby's Pincer Grasp Using Food
If you will remember, many people use pincer grasp development as a sign to give smaller pieces of table foods. But instead, I recommend actually giving your child some appropriately textured small pieces of food much earlier in their feeding journey.
Think things like soft beans, gently mashed peas, pieces of grated cheese. All of these foods are easy for your child to use a raking motion and palmar grasp to eat and move them into their mouth.
From a choking hazard standpoint, as long as you are offering soft foods at this age and are familiar with the high-risk choking foods, these foods are all easy ways to help your child strengthen their hand muscles.
These smaller foods are fine to offer soon after the beginning of foods around 6 months of age. I recommend starting with strictly bigger pieces. But very quickly you can start incorporating piles of smaller food items.
The rule of thumb here is if your child can get them to their mouth and they are the appropriate texture, then they can handle eating them developmentally!
How to Offer Smaller Pieces of Food to Your Baby
If you are practicing a baby-led weaning style of feeding, I recommend offering smaller pieces of food as well as larger pieces of food. Incorporating both allows your baby to still easily eat the larger pieces of food and get them to their mouth.
Offering the smaller foods at the same time will allow them to work on their hand muscles while still being able to eat the food using a raking grasp. As they progress with their grasp, they will naturally start to pick up the food with the side of their index finger and thumb.
By offering the sizes of foods together, you are offering them the chance to have plenty of opportunities to practice their pincer grasp development. But they can do it without getting frustrated that their hand isn’t working the way they want it to and keeping them from eating!
You might see some recommendations out there to offer the small pieces of food on a high chair tray. While this might be able to in and of itself help your baby’s pincer grasp development, I recommend serving food on plates across the board.
Serving foods on plates and bowls can help with so many other aspects of feeding. Including helping your baby to develop a good relationship with food. And by offering many opportunities for your baby to naturally practice their pincer grasp with small foods, you really don’t need to specifically focus on their pincer grasp in many cases.
When Should Your Baby Develop Their Pincer Grasp By?
At the end of the day, your child will develop all of these fine motor skills at their own pace! We give ranges that we tend to see these skills develop. If you don’t see them appearing or if you think there is something wrong, it never hurts to consult an occupational therapist for an evaluation and help.
But do your best not to compare your baby to another. Some babies will develop their mature pincer grasp much earlier than others. Some much later. It’s not a race! If your baby is on the later side it really doesn’t mean that something is necessarily wrong.
Provide them with plenty of opportunities during mealtimes to practice their pincer grasp. Consider an occupational therapy evaluation if you think that they are delayed in progressing through their grasps. But at the end of the day, there is a large window when it comes to developmental milestones!