A lot of kids who only accept a limited number of foods don’t like to get their hands messy, and kids who don’t like to get their hands messy want to wipe them–a lot! This can get really tricky in therapy or food play when you can’t even get into an activity because there is constant clamor about needing to wipe hands.
There are 2 ways to go when it comes to hand-wiping, to wipe and not to wipe. And, to be consistent, it’s best to stick to one once you commit (though, if you’ve decided not to have a towel handy and it’s REALLY not working, you can change your mind and have the towel handy, just be ready to commit to that). Otherwise it gets confusing.
The first way is to refuse and consistently refuse access to a towel during food play. It becomes a rule. First we wash hands, then we play with food, then we wash hands again. With this option, you will most likely have some tantrums at first. But most kids do learn to stop asking and when they do, they get all the benefits of feeling food on their fingers for longer periods of time. There’s a greater chance that tastes will actually make it to their mouths because it’s on their hands. And it really does give kids a fuller experience of touching and learning about food when they’re not constantly wiping the food off.
That being said, if a child is simply not going to participate and does not feel safe without something to wipe their hands on, holding out is not helping anyone. And most likely the child will find anything, from her clothes, to her hair, to the straps on the high chair to wipe her hands on, and this gets gross and frustrating for everyone!
So, you can choose to pick your battles and have a towel handy and available to your child. The big caveat here is to give it as little attention as possible! I repeat, as little attention as possible! The focus, your attention and your fun should stay on and about the food. If your child wants to wipe their hands, ok, they have access to the towel, they don’t even have to ask you, so you really have to give no attention at all. When they ask you for a towel, you can even hand it to them without even looking at it or them or just point.
The no attention is key, and it’s why, if we’re going to wipe hands during food play, I keep the towel completely accessible to the child. This helps weed out what part of the behavior is genuinely based on distress and feeling unsafe with dirty hands and what part of the behavior is for attention. If it’s for attention and it gets no attention, the child will soon not even really care about wiping his hands and the towel will sit unused. If it’s not about attention and the child really feels anxious about needing to wipe his hands, he won’t care whether you give it attention or not and will be really relieved to have the towel there to wipe off with.
So, to wipe or not to wipe? It’s your choice, but once you’ve decided bring your attention back to the food. Pick an activity from the activities pull-down menu on the right and happy food play!