The Trouble With Hands and Learning How to Use Them

Hands are hard.

The trouble with hands is that they don’t come with an instruction manual. In her fifth month of life, my daughter is learning that the hard way.

She wants so badly to use her hands for things like grabbing, holding and that all-important insertion of objects into her mouth. Toys, books, blankets, shirts, other people’s fingers–you name it–and it’s going in her mouth. Aside from sleeping, eating and pooping, putting things in her mouth seems to be the one true destiny of her life at this point. To paraphrase the great John Henry Newman:

“God created Maddie to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to Maddie which He has not committed to another. She has her mission. And that mission is to put things in her mouth.”

OK, so maybe it’s not that important, but she sure acts like it is. Sometimes her good mood depends on the completion of this mission. And as her father, it’s frustrating for me to watch her struggle to use her hands in this effort when there is very little I can do to help her master the art. Her process usually works like this:

  1. Attempt to grab the object.
  2. Misuse her depth perception and fail to grab the object.
  3. Try again.
  4. Get her hands around the object, but in the least useful way possible. If it’s a toy key, she’ll grab the very front end of it. If it’s a stuffed toy, she’ll grab it by the middle of its face.
  5. Proceed to pull the object toward her face and jam it into her mouth.
  6. Become immediately disappointed when the object fails to satisfy.
  7. Pull the object out of her mouth, stare at it and regroup.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 until she gets mad or gives up and moves on.

There is also sometimes the added step of losing her grip on the object and then trying to pick it up off the flat surface of her bed or the floor. This is where the lack of a hand owner’s manual really comes back to haunt her. The depth perception issue combines with her inability to firmly grasp things, producing a scene that would be comical if it weren’t so tragic in its futility. If she is unsuccessful after a few attempts, I’ll jump in and pick the object up a little to move it closer to her hands, subliminally encouraging her to pick it up by a part of the object that will actually aid in effectively getting it into her mouth.

I should note that she is getting better at having hands with each passing day, in spite of the unwieldy toys and objects she has to work with. I don’t know if we just haven’t bought the right stuff or if there simply aren’t any out there that can counteract a baby’s lack of hand-eye coordination. A set of keys, for example, is a pretty standard baby toy, but it’s probably one of the worst things she could be using to learn a proper grasping technique when they can so easily slip through her fingers or be grabbed in an inconvenient way.

Using her hands

In recent days, I’ve been giving her a stuffed toy connected to a pacifier (pictured above), which seems like a brilliant invention. Maddie wants to grab things and put them in her mouth, so why not attach something that’s meant to go in your mouth to something large and soft that can be more easily grabbed? While this sounds good in theory, it is perhaps the most frustrating toy of all. If she grabs it by the stuffed toy, she gets a mouth full of the toy’s fuzzy face, which obviously doesn’t satisfy her salivary needs. As her motor skills are getting more refined, she is sometimes able to grab the pacifier itself or the little tags hanging off the end of the stuffed toy. This means that she is usually sucking on these tags or trying to jam the side of the pacifier into her mouth. Now that she can roll over at will, she incorporates that into her strenuous efforts to get a good handle on the toy, which means that sometimes she has the pacifier in her mitts while the rest of the toy is trapped under her body or her enormous head. The routine honestly looks like a carefully choreographed comedy bit out of an old Charlie Chaplin film or something.

Probably the things she’s best at grabbing right now are fingers, a skill she has honed extensively while breastfeeding. She has begun nonchalantly mauling Theresa’s boob with her fingers while she eats, which has led Theresa to engage in hand-to-hand combat to protect herself throughout feedings. The scene looks like an intricate dance, as Maddie lies there eating and swatting her hand, which is intercepted each time by Theresa’s own hand. Maddie will then grab Theresa’s fingers or sometimes take one between her thumb and index finger and practice pinching around it.

When she’s not breastfeeding, Maddie can often be found feasting upon various people’s fingers for a quick between-meal snack. I’ve previously alluded to how she treats my thumb and index finger like a corn on the cob, sliding her mouth along them until she finds a hair-free spot to chomp on. Now that she is gaining some nuance in her hand skills, she has started making a fist around one of my fingers, pulling it toward her face, staring at it for a moment and then jamming it into her mouth before biting down with all her might. If I’m lucky, she hasn’t put my finger in line with her fangs. Maintaining her grip on my finger, she will slowly release it, only to stare at it again for a moment and jam it back in for a second bite. Sometimes she will get my entire hand involved in the meal by grabbing my middle finger and my thumb and using them as handles to deliver my index finger to her mouth. It all depends upon her appetite.

Overall, this has been a really fun process to watch unfold, as my baby girl figures out how to be a full-fledged person. I’m sure she will only get handier at using her hands as the days turn into weeks and months, but it has already been fascinating to see her progress from simply watching the world to trying to interact with it in a meaningful way, even if that just means trying to cover everything in the world in her spit.

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