What Parents Need to Know About Hand Dominance in Children

by: Tina Milian
mom playing with toddler with toys

Most children will develop a preference to use one hand more than the other as they get older. Teaching a child how to use their left hand is tricky, especially if you are right handed.

Tina Milian, MS, OTR/L, at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Rehabilitation Center answers common questions parents have when it comes to if their children are lefties or righties.

Q: What is hand dominance and by what age should my child achieve?

A: Hand dominance is your preferred hand used for writing, coloring, eating, and cutting. A hand dominance usually starts to develop between the ages two to four, however it is common at this stage for children to swap hands.

By age four a clear hand dominance is usually established.

Q: How do I teach my child to use their dominant side?

therapist feeding toddler with dominant hand

A: Parents can present toys, writing and feeding tools at the center of child's body and see which hand they use to reach for it. Once you identify the hand, encourage this hand for eating, brushing teeth, and writing while gently blocking or discouraging the opposite hand.

The opposite hand can be called their “helper hand”. The “helper hand” can stabilize paper, toy, or dish. You can give your child reminders of which hand to use by placing a stamp, stick on tattoo or a bracelet on their dominant hand.

It is important that you offer items to your child in the center of their body, as often times if the item is presented at the right, your child will reach with their right hands and if on left, they will reach with the left hand.

It is important to note that before age two babies should learn, play, and explore with both hands. Such things as shaking a rattle, picking up hard meltable snacks, stacking blocks, and placing puzzles/pegs in a board should be taught with each hand.

Q: What is mixed hand dominance?

A: This is when your child switches hands during tasks. Neither hand seems strong and both hands lack coordination and precision. This child does not have a dominant side and can easily be confused as being ambidextrous.

Q: What does being ambidextrous mean?

A: This is when both hands are equally strong and can complete tasks such as feeding, writing, and cutting with good accuracy on either side.

Q: Besides hands, are there any other body parts that a child can show dominance?

child looking through cone with dominant eye

A: Yes! You can have a dominant eye and dominant leg.

Q: How do I test for this?

A: For eye, bring a kaleidoscope or a paper towel roll to you child at the center of his body. Your child will reach for the kaleidoscope with their dominant hand then bring it to their dominant eye to look through.

For leg, roll a ball toward your child or ask them to stand on one foot. Your child will kick the ball and balance with their dominant leg.

If you find that your child continues to have trouble with hand dominance and is behind with hand skill development an occupational therapy evaluation can help. Our pediatric outpatient rehabilitation programs provide highly individualized therapies for children whose impairments are the result of illness, injury and congenital defects.

About the Author

Tina Milian, OT Tina Milian, MS, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at the Pediatric Rehabilitation Center at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital. With more than 18 years of experience specializing in pediatrics, she obtained her certification in the administration of the Sensory Integration and Praxis Test (SIPT) in June 2012 and has training and experience in sensory processing and constraint induced therapy.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions presented in this blog post do not reflect the ideas and opinions of Memorial Healthcare System.