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Encouraging Fine Motor Skill Development

mother and daughter

According to developmental experts, manual dexterity is directly tied to cognitive development. "It's through her hands that your baby demonstrates the link between thought and action," says Rhoda Erhardt, a pediatric occupational therapist in St. Paul who specializes in hand function. That's why it's important to track your child's hand development and encourage her fine motor skills. Here's what to expect in the first 12 months.

newborn baby hand holding on to adult hand

Most of the hand movement that occurs during the first three months is involuntary. Place your finger in your newborn's palm, and his fingers will close around it tightly. "Your child doesn't have superhuman strength," Erhardt says. It's simply his palmar reflex, an automatic response. Your baby may also knot his hands into tight fists or splay them if he's crying or surprised. In the months ahead, these reflexes will eventually turn into voluntary actions.

Helping Hands

  • Stroke the backs of his knuckles with a rattle. Then, as his fingers open, place it gently in his palm. In the beginning, he won't be able to hold it very long, but the experience of holding and dropping it will let him practice for later play.
  • Make sure your baby plays on his tummy. It's crucial for helping him strengthen his back, shoulder, arm, and hand muscles.
  • Invest in a baby gym with dangling toys. Placing your baby under the arch and encouraging her to bat at the toys is wonderful practice for hand-eye coordination.

baby on tummy

This is a crucial period in the development of your baby's fine motor skills. During these months, he'll start to learn to coordinate his thoughts with his hand movements. He won't just pick up any old toy; he'll reach for, grab, and mouth his favorites. He'll also begin to grab his own hands and feet and transfer objects from hand to hand. "This type of exploration teaches your child cause and effect and shows him that his actions have an impact on the world," Philibert says.

Helping Hands

  • Play pat-a-cake or "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" with your baby to help improve her coordination.
  • Press a soft block between your baby's hands for practice holding toys.
  • Shift your baby's positions frequently. When an infant learns to play in a new position, such as on her side, her motor skills are challenged in different ways and develop more thoroughly.

Baby playing with pots and pans

By now, your baby is a master at handling her toys. Banging, shaking, dropping, and even throwing them are all routine play.

Her biggest challenge during these months will be learning how to feed herself. "She'll be able to wedge the food into her fist," Philibert says. "Whether she gets it into her mouth is another story." By the end of this period, your child's pincer skills will develop. She will not only be able to feed herself but also have the skill to grip a selected Cheerio between her thumb and forefinger.

Helping Hands

  • Let your baby make a mess. It's great practice for little fingers.
  • When your baby plays, make sure her back and shoulders are supported so she can concentrate on making her fingers work.
  • Let your baby do things by herself. This allows her to practice her skills and promotes independence.

Teach Her About Movement

During this stage, your baby refines what she knows and moves on to harder tasks, such as learning how to operate her fingers independently of one another. (That means that the inside of her nose and ears, as well as yours, suddenly become tunnels to be explored.) Your child will also be able to point to objects she wants and use hand signals to let you know that she wants to be held or picked up. She'll also start to clap along to music and willingly reach for and hold your hand.

Helping Hands

  • Tie short pieces of different-colored yarn to each of her fingers so she can see and feel them moving individually. Make sure the yarn is snug but not too tight.
  • Poking holes is the best way to help your child learn to use each of her fingers independently, so invest in some clay and let her poke to her heart's content.
  • Babies this age understand dozens of words, so ask your child to perform tasks that challenge her motor coordination and her understanding of cause and effect, such as squeezing a squeaky toy.