Baby development

Those amazing hands

Babies use their hands to explore the world

Six-month-old Cassandra loves to touch things. “She rubs her hands over every surface — in fact, right now she’s sitting in her high chair with one arm reaching back to feel the plasticky upholstery,” says her mom, Stephanie Wood.

Cassandra also likes to touch the nubby texture of the throw cushions on the couch and the rug, and the smooth crib sheets. “I give her lots of toys with different textures, but she’s really more interested in the real stuff. She’s learning about the wider world through her hands,” says Wood. “And about two weeks ago, I noticed that she was able to transfer an object from one hand to the other.”

Cassandra is right on track when it comes to fine motor development — the ability to use the fingers, hands and wrists, says Vancouver paediatric occupational therapist Ronit Kabazo. Read on for a grasp of hand development milestones and how to encourage your baby’s growing dexterity.

The hands open

Newborn hands are closed with the thumb tucked under the fingers 80 to 90 percent of the time, says Kabazo. Over the next three months, those tiny fingers will unfurl.

Hand movements are general and not purposeful at first: Tiny babies don’t know that their hands belong to them. Gradually, those random movements become more organized. Wood says she noticed how, at about two months, Cassandra started to look intently at her hands. “You could tell she was beginning to recognize that they were hers.”

Right from birth, if you put your finger into baby’s palm, she’ll hold on. This grasp reflex lasts for several months. Gradually, though, more purposeful grasping develops, along with the ability to see and be interested in an object. Young babies enjoy having a mobile so they can bat at dangling toys. Try putting things in your baby’s hands — blocks, rattles, your finger, says Kabazo. “The palm provides baby with a lot of sensory information.”

Grasping and raking

By four months, the grasping reflex is well assimilated and your baby will begin to be able to hold onto an object for a few seconds. Putting objects to the mouth is a sign of healthy, normal development, says Kabazo. At this stage, babies are also able to clasp their hands together, and hold onto a soft toy with both hands along the midline of the body. “Cassandra loves her toes,” says her mom. “We leave her socks off whenever it’s warm enough because she’ll grab and pull them off anyway, and she really enjoys grabbing her toes when it’s bath time.”

Tummy time is now a bigger part of your baby’s life. With the ability to hold up her head and support her weight on her hands and arms, she will begin to push with her hands and roll over.

By six months, the fingers operate as a unit and babies typically rake objects toward themselves. If she’s holding a toy in one hand, she may pat it with the other.

All sorts of textures and interesting objects are important at this stage — small balls, beanbags, blocks and rattles. Try a game of patty cake too!

Holding on and letting go

Between six and nine months, your baby has a lot more control over his hands as he learns to use his fingers more effectively. He’s beginning to hold on and let go, bang objects together or on the floor, and throw things.

He is also gaining the ability to use his hands independently — perhaps holding a rattle in one hand and reaching for a block with the other. “Now that baby is sitting with more stability, he can do more things with his hands,” says Kabazo.

Wood says one of the best toy buys she’s made is a shape sorter. “Cassandra hasn’t figured out how to put the blocks through the sorter, but she loves to fill the bucket with them and then dump them out,” says Wood. “And while she doesn’t wave goodbye yet, she does extend her arm so that I can wave her hand.”

Fine-tuning the fingers

By 10 months, you’ll likely see your baby perfecting the pincer grasp, the ability to pick up small objects using the thumb and index finger.

Of course, the best place to practise this ability is during mealtimes. Picking up raisins, cereal and small pieces of cut-up fruit gives babies lots of practice using the pincer grip.

A word of caution: The ability to pick up small objects and the propensity to put everything in their mouths demands careful babyproofing. Small non-edible objects within baby’s grasp are a choking hazard.