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Fine motor skills are small movements like grabbing, and gross motor skills are bigger movements, like crawling. They develop starting at the top, with head control and then continue down the body. Find out how tummy time and self-feeding help your baby develop motor skills.
What are fine and gross motor skills?
A motor skill is an action that involves using the muscles.
Fine motor skills are small movements that use the small muscles of the fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and tongue. Some of the fine motor skills your baby will master include sucking her fingers, grabbing objects, putting things in her mouth, moving objects from one hand to the other, picking up and dropping things, and waving. Other fine motor skills that may come later are picking up small objects, putting on clothes, turning pages, and using a crayon or pencil.
Gross motor skills are the bigger movements that use the large muscles in the arms, legs, torso, and feet. Some of the gross motor skills your baby will master are rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing, and cruising. Other gross motor skills that may come later include walking, climbing stairs, squatting, running, jumping, and kicking a ball.
How do motor skills develop?
When your baby is a newborn, his brain isn't mature enough to control his movements. Instead, he'll have primitive reflexes such as turning his head to the side when you stroke his cheek (rooting reflex) and curling his hand around your finger if you place it in his palm (grasp reflex). As your baby matures, many of the reflexes disappear and voluntary motor skills develop.
Motor skill development starts at the head and then moves down the body. So your newborn learns to control her mouth, face, lips, and tongue first, with the rest following over time.
Neck control comes before shoulders, and shoulders before back. Your baby controls his arms before his hands, and hands before fingers.
Gross motor skills develop in each area before fine motor skills. So she’ll be able to bring her arms together before she learns how to pass a toy from hand to hand.
For your baby to do things for himself, he’ll need to use gross and fine skills together. He’ll gradually get better at this as he grows into toddlerhood.
For example, by the time your child reaches two years old she’ll be able to use a shape-sorting toy. She’ll use gross motor skills to hold her body steady enough to grasp the shapes firmly. She'll then use fine motor skills to twist or turn each shape to fit the right slot.
How can I help my child with gross and fine motor skills?
Some early things you can do to promote these skills are:
- Change the direction you put your child down in the crib each day. This will encourage your baby to turn his head in different directions and strengthen both sides of his neck. It also helps prevent plagiocephaly (a flat spot on the back of the head).
- Practice tummy time each day. Spending time on their tummy helps babies learn to lift their head, push up, roll over, sit up, and crawl. Aim for a few minutes several times a day, starting right at birth.
- Play games that challenge your baby a little. For example, when he can sit unsupported, put his favorite toy just out of reach. This will mean he must balance as he makes a grab for his toy.
- As your baby gets ready to crawl, place her toys up off the floor, such as on a couch. This encourages your baby to look up, lift her head, and push up onto her hands and knees to locate her toy. This action helps her prepare to move towards the toy.
- Once your baby is crawling, create obstacle courses that entice him to go through tunnels and up and over pillows.
- For fine motor skill practice, once your baby has started eating solid foods, allow her to try feeding herself. Put cereal or large chunks of very soft foods in front of her so she can practice grabbing them and getting them to her mouth. Eventually, she'll learn to grip the food between her thumb and forefinger.
What are signs that my baby is not developing motor skills?
Here are some warning signs that your baby is not developing motor skills as expected. Your baby's doctor will check for these red flags at his well-child visits. Here's what to watch for:
- Your baby doesn't turn her head to both sides
- He feels stiff
- Her head has a flat spot
- He keeps one or both hands clenched in a fist
By 12 months your baby should be able to:
- Sit unsupported and pull herself up to stand
- Grasp toys and let them go
- Bring toys to her mouth and bang them together
- Clap hands
- Feed herself finger foods
- Move around on the floor
- Put objects into a large container
- Hold a bottle by himself