6 Ways to Help Baby Practice the Pincer Grasp

Getting baby ready for smaller pieces of food

When babies start using their fingers to form a “pincer grasp” to pick up and move small objects, we’re often told that’s one sign they are ready to eat smaller pieces of food. But what, exactly, is a pincer grasp, how does it develop, why is it important, and how can we help baby learn to use it?

A pincer grasp simply means the tips of the thumb and index finger come together, a motion we use to pick up small items, pull zippers, and button shirts. Before babies develop a pincer grasp, they will use their whole hand—their fingers and palm together—to pick up, hold, and bring food into their mouths. Once a baby develops a pincer grasp, however, they are able to pick up smaller, individual pieces of food. As baby begins using a pincer grasp to self-feed, independently bringing food items to their mouths, they will continue to refine their chewing skills to manage smaller pieces.

Reflex leads to pincer grasp

For infants, each new ability builds on more basic skills. Sitting up and self-feeding, for example, become possible for baby only after months of practice learning how to roll over and grab at objects.

The pincer grasp is no exception: it evolves from a simple reflex. Press a finger into a newborn’s hand and watch them wrap their tiny fingers around it. This seems heartwarming and adorable, but it’s really just a response to pressure on baby’s palm, known as the palmar reflex. Reflexes are built-in movement patterns that help newborns build strength, find food, and learn about the world around them.

Over time, reflexes fade as babies learn to make more movements on purpose. At around 3 months, babies will start kicking their legs and reaching for items while lying on their backs; this builds their core muscles. At around 4 months, a baby will begin rolling and reaching for objects while on their tummy, strengthening their back muscles. Core and back strength lead to postural stability, which eventually allows a baby to sit upright, and later, to walk. These are known as gross motor skills.

Learning to use smaller muscles

This core strength and stability allows babies to focus on practicing fine motor movements, like the pincer grasp, which involve coordinating lots of small muscles in the arms, hands, and fingers.

At around 8 months, most babies will progress from a whole-hand grasp to an immature pincer grasp—the pads of their fingers meet, but not the tips. Some babies exhibit this skill at closer to 7 months of age.1 By 9 months, most babies refine this skill, with the tips of their thumb and forefinger meeting, and can effectively use a pincer grasp to pick up smaller food items such as a pea, a slice of grape, or a piece of cereal.

Maeve, 7 months, tries to pick up a small piece of pear, but isn’t very successful.
William, 8 months, practices his emerging pincer grasp with small pieces of beef brisket.

Mouth skills may not match

Many caregivers wonder when it’s safe to start serving baby smaller pieces of food. Once babies can successfully use a pincer grasp to get bite-size foods into their mouth, they are ready to practice chewing and swallowing them. While research shows an increased risk of choking when someone else puts solid food into baby’s mouth, self-feeding actually reduces such risks, according to studies on the topic.6 Exposure and practice helps babies build new motor patterns, enabling them to safely eat all kinds of food

Even after a pincer grasp is present, however, it’s important to continue avoiding foods that are small, round, firm, and slippery. These include whole seeds or nuts, little whole grapes, grapes halved at the center, or firm blueberries—foods that start out small and round rather than becoming smaller as a baby or toddler chews them.9 10

If baby is close to a year and frequently reverts to a whole-hand grasp, be sure to let their doctor know, as baby may need help building more trunk and arm strength.

If baby is 12 months or older and not yet attempting a pincer grasp, tell their healthcare provider so they can determine if baby needs help building fine motor skills.

As the pincer grasp develops and becomes easier, it’s common for some babies to overstuff their mouths with small bits of food. Overstuffing usually is a passing phase, but it can slightly increase baby’s risk of choking. Check out our page on pocketing, shoving, and overstuffing to learn more.

Reviewed by:

K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT

K. Rappaport, OTR/L, MS, SCFES, IBCLC

D. Roberts, MS, OTR/L, IBCLC

  1. Smet, N. & Lucas, C.B. (2020). Occupational therapy view of child development. In Case-Smith’s Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents (8th ed., pp 103-118). Elsevier.
  2. Fangupo, L. J., Heath, A. L. M., Williams, S. M., Erickson Williams, L. W., Morison, B. J., Fleming, E. A., Taylor, B. J., Wheeler, B. J., & Taylor, R. W. (2016). A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking. PEDIATRICS, 138(4), e20160772. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-0772
  3. Shune, S. E., Moon, J. B., & Goodman, S. S. (2016). The Effects of Age and Preoral Sensorimotor Cues on Anticipatory Mouth Movement During Swallowing. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 59(2), 195–205. https://doi.org/10.1044/2015_jslhr-s-15-0138
  4. Coulthard, H., Harris, G., & Emmett, P. (2009). Delayed introduction of lumpy foods to children during the complementary feeding period affects child’s food acceptance and feeding at 7 years of age. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 5(1), 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-8709.2008.00153.x
  5. Tournier, C., Demonteil, L., Ksiazek, E., Marduel, A., Weenen, H., & Nicklaus, S. (2021). Factors Associated With Food Texture Acceptance in 4- to 36-Month-Old French Children: Findings From a Survey Study. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.616484
  6. Gisel E.G. (1991). Effect of food texture on the development of chewing of children between 6 months and 2 years of age. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 33(1): 69–79.
  7. Ding, G., Wu, B., Vinturache, A., Cai, C., Lu, M., & Gu, H. (2020). Tracheobronchial foreign body aspiration in children. Medicine, 99(22), e20480. https://doi.org/10.1097/md.0000000000020480
  8. NY State Department of Health. (2017). Choking Prevention for Children. https://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/injury_prevention/choking_prevention_for_children.htm
  9. Smet, N. & Lucas, C.B. (2020). Occupational therapy view of child development. In Case-Smith’s Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents (8th ed., pp 103-118). Elsevier.
  10. Hirschel, A., Pehoski, C., & Coryell, J. (1990). Environmental Support and the Development of Grasp in Infants. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 44(8), 721–727. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.44.8.721
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