Fine Motor Milestones

Picking Up and Letting Go

toddler holding cereal

Along with fine motor development, babies have to learn another new skill: finesse. If you've ever seen an infant grab for a toy and then smack herself in the face with it as she attempts to get it into her mouth, then you've seen that this is not an easy task. Finesse is especially important once baby starts using her pincer grasp (using the index finger and thumb in concert) to pick up small objects, such as a cereal puff. If she applies too much force, that yummy "O" will turn to crumbs in her fingertips.

But learning to pick up an item is just half the skill -- letting go is the other half. And once babies learn to let go, they begin to understand that different tactics are required depending on the size and weight of the object, and whether they want to put it on a table or throw it on the floor. "They are constantly learning how to grade their movements," says pediatric occupational therapist Leilanie Antipolo, of the Children's Hospital of Orange County, in California. "This is how we learn the difference between the amount of force used on a Styrofoam cup versus a glass cup versus a plastic cup."

From 18 months until their second birthday, children will be fascinated with the wonders of sculpting clay. They will struggle with and then master a three-part form-board puzzle. By age 3, they'll be able to work with a pair of scissors (supervised, of course), get a floppy string through a small bead hole, and figure out how to use one hand to hold a piece of paper still while using the other to color with crayons. Don't be surprised if these relatively quiet activities leave your child exhausted and flustered -- especially if that bead just won't get on that string. "Those smaller muscles tire quickly," Antipolo says.

This is especially evident when baby is learning to stack blocks. By age 1, she should be able to build a four-block tower. By age 2, she should be able to use six blocks. Stacking the blocks requires the ability not only to pick up each block but to release it gently and accurately. Over time, babies learn to manage the grasp, timing, and release necessary for stacking.

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