When it comes to milestones, walking gets most of the fanfare. But mastering fine motor skills is no small feat. Whereas learning how to crawl or run calls for boundless energy, learning to pick up a diced peach or to button a shirt requires something children don't have in such large supply: patience.
"The hand is very complex," says Daniela Corbetta, PhD, who studies infant fine motor development as an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "There are joints and muscles that need to be organized and can be moved in very different ways. Babies need to differentiate those sets of muscles to use their fingers, their hands, and their arms in a very fine-tuned fashion."
The first year of life lays the foundation of fine motor development. Children then spend the next two years mastering these skills. All of these advancements not only help kids become more independent, but also teach fundamental lessons in problem solving, communication, and how their body works.
It's not until about 2 months of age that babies even realize they have hands. Between 2 and 4 months, they'll see something and try to get it with their hands. They'll swipe at the toy, only occasionally hitting it. But accuracy will gradually improve. By 6 months, baby won't bat at the toy or wave his arm about before landing on it, as he would have just a few months ago. Now he'll grab for that irresistible toy with a raking grasp. While an improvement on swiping, it's still primitive because it ignores his thumb. This is because hand motor development moves from the pinky upward to the thumb.
Until now, the main interest in an object was getting it (then putting it in his mouth to explore it). But at around 6 months of age, your baby is more likely to do something with the toy (or spoon or remote!) -- banging or shaking it, for example. Then, at 8 months, baby will start to strategize. Hold a spoon in front of his face. If he sees that it's vertical, he knows he has to rotate his wrist as if preparing to shake a hand. If it's horizontal, he'll turn his wrist flat so he can grab it. He'll easily seize the spoon because he's mastered something called anticipatory behavior. And just like that, your baby has hit a major milestone: He has learned how to solve the problem of, "I want that cool thing. How do I get it?"