Hand dominance: Is my child ambidextrous?

As a Paediatric Occupational Therapist, I frequently get asked “Is my child ambidextrous?”.  Before we answer this question, first we have to understand a little more about development.

In the first 2 years of life babies learn lots of information about how the muscles in their bodies and hands work.  First, they learn how to bring both their hands together (e.g. clapping).  Then they move onto reciprocal movements where both sides of the body complete alternating actions (e.g. crawling or climbing).  Finally, they develop the ability to use both hands simultaneously, one hand stabilising whilst the other hand works (e.g. holding the paper whilst drawing or holding a bowl still whilst eating with a spoon).


When does hand dominance develop?

As the brain develops, one particular side emerges as being more specialised (the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa).  Hand dominance usually emerges around 2 years of age and it is clearly established in most children by 5 years of age.

Why is hand dominance important?

The more a child uses one particular hand, the more efficient and automatic the movements become which then frees up cognitive energy to focus on more complex movements or higher-level thoughts (e.g. being able to think about ideas, sentence structure and spelling rather than having to focus on pencil grasp and pencil control).

Children who switch between using their left and right hand can be described as displaying mixed hand dominance.  Children with mixed dominance may find it challenging to carry out precise fine motor skills such as cutting with scissors or handwriting.

Is my child ambidextrous?

Ambidexterity occurs when children are equally skilled in using both their left and right hand. True ambidexterity is extremely rare only occurs in 1% of the population.  Often times there is an underlying reason why a child is yet to develop a dominant hand.  Common reasons include:

  • Weak hand strength: Some children will start an activity with their preferred hand and then swap when their hand becomes tired. This isn’t a difficulty with hand dominance necessarily, they may just need to work on strengthening their hands so that they can improve their endurance for fine motor tasks.
  • Difficulty crossing the midline: We all have an invisible line down the centre of our body that is referred to as the midline of the body. Midline crossing is the ability to use one hand to work on the opposite side of the body.  Some children will pick up objects with the hand that is closest or may start an activity with one hand and switch hands if they need to work on the other side of their body.

6 Tips to try at home:

  • It is best not to bias children towards a particular side as much as possible. Place objects at the midline and encourage your child to choose if there is not a clear hand preference
  • Encourage your child to complete the activity with the hand they started (no swapping during the task) in order to encourage them to develop strength and endurance.
  • Closely watch your child and note down how often they are using each hand throughout the day. If their does appear to be a more preferred hand you can assist them by using ‘Helper Hand’ and ‘Doing Hand’ terminology.  For example “It is your Doing Hand’s job to hold the pencil and your Helper Hand’s job to hold the paper still”.
  • Work on hand strengthening tasks to ensure they are not switching hands due to fatigue.
  • Encourage your child to complete activities that require both the hands to work together:
    • Threading
    • Hammer or screwdriver games
    • Cutting with scissors
    • Playdough
    • Lego
  • Practice midline crossing:
    • Use chalk to make a large track on a concrete path. Challenge your child to drive a car along the track, only using one hand to get from one side of the track to the other.
    • Assist your child to trace over a large infinity symbol (sideways figure of 8). You could do this on a large piece of butcher’s paper on the wall or complete this activity with a stick in the sandpit. Make sure they use one hand to trace the entire way around.
    • If your you child has established a Doing Hand and Helper Hand. Set up puzzles to encourage reaching across the midline.  e.g. Assist your child into a side sitting position, leaning on their Helper Hand, position the puzzle pieces on the opposite side of their body so that they have to reach across with their Doing Hand to collect the pieces.kate headshot

-Kate Kleinau, Occupational Therapist

Please feel free to ask questions or give me your feedback.  I am always more than happy to answer any emails personally.

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