Until she was about ten months old, Grace Power was happy to have her mother, Donna, spoon-feed her mashed-up veggies and cereal. Then she hit the “me do it” stage. According to her mom, Grace’s obvious delight in using her thumb and finger to very precisely pick up chunks of banana and pop them into her mouth makes it worth the extra time (and sometimes mess) it takes to finish a meal.
That handy pincer grip is just one of the fine motor skills babies are expected to develop during their first year.
“People usually think of fine motor skills as the things a baby can do with his hands, but they are really broader than that,” says Joyce Magill-Evans, professor of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta. “Fine motor skills allow our eyes to track objects, and our lips and tongues to form sounds and manage food.”
A young baby, for example, won’t have the ability to transfer solid food from the front of his mouth to the back where it can be swallowed. Spoon in a taste of mashed banana, and he’ll just push it back out with his tongue. By six months or so, however, most babies can use their tongues to help them swallow the food.
The development of hand skills is more complex and usually follows a predictable pattern.
1. Reaching for mom’s face, mouth, jewellery or for toys or mobiles.
2. Grasping first as a reflex, when the fingers close when something touches your baby’s palm, but becoming more refined until your baby can pick up tiny objects with his finger and thumb.
3. Releasing is hard for babies to do at first, and they initially tend to drop items by accident. Eventually your baby will be able to drop Cheerios into his cup of juice with great precision.
4. Passing a cookie from one hand to another—so that he can pick up a second cookie.
Melissa Young has watched her ten-month-old daughter, Caroline, move through those stages. “I remember when she was about seven months, I would put blueberries and peas on her high-chair tray and she would try to pick them up,” she says. “It would take her a long time to get one into her hand, using all her fingers, and up to her mouth.”
But two months later, when the Young family was in the middle of renovating their home, Caroline had mastered the art of picking up tiny things. “Oh, it was awful,” Young recalls. “We had the carpeting ripped up and drywall everywhere. I’d sweep the floor and be sure I had everything cleaned up, then Caroline would scoot around and find little tiny screws or miniature pieces of plaster or splinters of wood. And, of course, she’d right away put them in her mouth.” And, of course, she’d protest vigorously when Young just as quickly removed each item.
Donna Power says Grace was a “handy” baby right from the start. “Even when I was pregnant with her, I could feel her little hands moving — I would tell my friends at work that I thought she was knitting me a sweater. And from the moment she was born, she would knead my breast while she was nursing.” At six months, Grace could hold a book open to peruse the pictures, and by ten months she could turn the pages of one of her sturdy board books by herself.
There is a wide range of normal in fine motor skill development, but if your baby is not reaching for objects by about five months, Magill-Evans recommends checking with your doctor. If your baby seems to have a marked hand preference (for example, always uses his right hand), this should also be checked out, as babies normally use both hands.
How can you help your little one develop these important skills? “I emphasize letting a baby spend time on his tummy during supervised playtime,” Magill-Evans says. “With the concern about sudden infant death, many parents are not placing their babies on their tummies enough during playtime. Being tummy-down encourages weight-bearing on the hands, helps with wrist stability and strengthens the muscles in the hands.”
She also recommends toys that encourage your baby to reach and grab. For babies six months and older, she likes “activity centres” that require a variety of movements—poking, pressing, turning, twisting, pushing up or down or side to side. Shape sorters and stacking toys are also good.
“You can also play games like pat-a-cake with your baby, which helps him gain control of his hands and learn to bring them to the middle of his body,” Magill-Evans advises. Even just using a spoon to bang on a tray helps develop coordination.
Of course, a baby’s mastering of these skills sometimes seems like a mixed blessing—as little Caroline’s six-year-old sister, Heidi, has discovered. “Now that she’s good at grasping,” says Young, “she loves to grab Heidi’s hair and pull.”