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Your Baby from 10 to 12 Months: Developing Motor Skills

baby girl about to clap hands

You've been amazed by each of your baby's big motor milestones. By now, she most likely rolls over and sits up. She might be scooting on her bottom, crawling, or pulling herself up to a stand as she launches herself into a world that beckons just out of reach. First steps are just around the corner.

Between 10 and 12 months, there are equally exciting -- though often overlooked -- motor-skill developments involving baby's hands. For example, you're out walking your baby in the stroller when she suddenly points to a dog and squeals. Or your baby's in her high chair when she deliberately picks up her sippy cup and drops it on the floor. These milestones don't get the same play as walking, but they're just as important to her development, indicating that your clever baby is now trying to master the world in a whole new way: with her tiny fingers.

The motor areas of a baby's brain mature in a head-to-toe sequence: the brain areas that control the head and neck muscles mature before those that control the trunk, arm, and hand muscles. The areas of the brain controlling the legs are the last to develop. Why is this? Put simply, it's probably because a baby needs to know how to suck and feed himself before he needs to walk.

When your baby was born, he held his arms and hands tucked close to his body, a position called "flexion." Over the past months, his hands and arm motions have become less reflexive and random; by 6 months, he can grasp a toy -- but only using his whole hand. To understand how limiting this is, watch a 6-month-old holding his pacifier. He has little control of his hands -- he may fling his arm around, hit himself in the head by accident, and mistakenly drop it -- then look frantically around wondering what happened to it. Or he may want to let go of it, but be unable to release his fingers, banging the paci on the floor in frustration.

Fast-forward a few months, and your baby is on the verge of mastering a crucial milestone: between 10 and 12 months, she develops the "pincer grasp," the ability to use the thumb and forefinger together to grasp and manipulate objects, or to pick up a pea or a Cheerio. Pointing or poking at toys is a precursor to this all-important event, indicating that she has the ability to move her index finger separately from the rest of her hand. "Eventually, your baby's fine motor skills will allow her to program a computer or play the flute, but this period of development is just as amazing," promises Barry Solomon, MD, an assistant professor of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "This is an exciting time for babies, because fine motor skills let them analyze the world in different ways," he explains.

For instance, once your baby can use the pincer grasp to pick up an object between her thumb and first digit and then drop it deliberately in favor of a more appealing object, she'll start running a host of experiments. She might throw her dish or cup off the high chair again and again to explore cause and effect. Will the dish always make the same noise when it hits the floor? Will the same sticky stuff cover my tray and clothes? Will the dog come into the kitchen if it hears the dish? Will Mom laugh, or will she say "no"? Indeed, the world opens up in all kinds of new ways -- cabinet doors that were previously off-limits when closed can now be opened. She can rotate, poke, and probe toys that she could only shake or bat at before. Toddlers at this age also love any toys with holes they can put things through, things with lids or doors that open and close, or toys that spin.

By 12 months, with fingers and thumb working together, baby should be able to build a two-block tower (then knock it down), and nest smaller objects inside larger ones and take them out again, says Dr. Solomon. Filling and dumping (especially dumping) are also new favorites. These activities lead to cognitive leaps, as your baby learns concepts like big and little, and full and empty.

In the right mood, your baby might even help you dress or undress him by raising his arms and curling his hands deliberately into fists. He'll clap when he's happy and enthusiastically wave bye-bye more often, now that he knows this gesture goes with that phrase. "This is the age of imitation," notes Hart. "Your baby will want to do everything you do."

Most babies pull themselves up to a stand between 10 and 12 months; of course, some do it earlier and even walk before their first birthday, and others are a little later. Whenever it happens, pulling to stand is a major milestone for babies, not just physically, but emotionally, says Sybil Hart, PhD, associate dean of research for Texas Tech University's College of Human Sciences. "Once a baby is upright, he's in a better position to make eye contact and interact socially."

Indeed, standing changes the way your baby interacts with his environment, as it "multiplies his opportunities for exploration and bolsters his confidence," explains Lise Eliot, PhD, author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Bantam). How exactly? Your baby's vertical stance allows for a new visual perspective, a better reach to grab objects, and a greater sense of equality with other upright humans. Next up: Practicing balance in preparation for taking his first steps.

From the Pediatrician

Sara DuMond, MD: By 10 months, stranger anxiety is probably starting up in full force. To minimize the fear at these well-baby visits, try holding your baby in your lap for most of the exam, as opposed to plopping him on the exam table when the doctor walks through the door.

On the other hand, if your baby has started to crawl, sitting still in your lap may be the last thing he wants to do! In light of germs, it's probably best that he stay off the floor. To keep him happy while you wait (hopefully not too long), holding him up to a mirror (many offices have one) is always entertaining. Or let him rip up the paper on the exam table -- we don't mind at all!

The Age of Frustration

Between 10 and 12 months, life gets frustrating for baby. Just as your baby manages to pull herself up to the coffee table, you swoop down and move her to the playpen. Or she manages to get her hands on a really interesting glittery thing (your necklace), and then you pry it out of her hands.

Your baby may also feel frustrated because you can't figure out what he's saying. He may point to the fridge, saying "baba, baba," his word for everything from "baby" to "ball," but not, until now, anything that would be in the fridge. Your string of wrong guesses only enrages him.

Finally, as babies get closer to a year, we expect them to wait a little. Instead of feeding him immediately like you did when he was a newborn, you might expect him to play with a couple of toys while you warm up lunch. This is by no means irresponsible parenting: babies need to be exposed to a little frustration now and then to learn how to become patient, but it's not an easy lesson!

Holly Robinson lives with her three children outside of Boston.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, January 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.