Developing Your Toddler's Motor Skills

From climbing stairs to riding a trike, your toddler never stops. Here's how she masters these complex moves.

One Step, Two Steps

Baby Boy with Blue Eyes Reaching for Camera

Once your baby is proficient at putting one foot in front of the other, he's got a whole new set of challenges to master, like climbing stairs and leaping over a puddle. Unlike an adult, or even a 6-year-old, a toddler has to ask himself, Which muscles do I need to use? "Being creatures of brute force, toddlers tend to overdo it, and 'turn on' too many muscles, which makes their movements stiff and awkward," says Jody L. Jensen, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin. But through trial and error, they'll learn how to isolate the particular muscles they need and eventually become more graceful. Sounds complicated, but remember it's only a matter of time before they'll leave you in the dust!

One Step, Two Steps

Babies are hypnotically drawn to stairs. They'll start off crawling up and scooting down on their bottom (while you hover below, ready to catch them if they miss a step!). But it will take them three to six months of practice walking before they're ready to scale the staircase upright, at around 18 months. The challenge? "They're trying to figure out how to shift their weight onto one foot so they can lift the other leg. One leg's got to be stiff, the other one bent," says Jensen.

At first, in an attempt to create stability, toddlers tend to stiffen both legs, resulting in an awkward Frankenstein-like rocking movement, which doesn't allow them to get the lifting foot in proper position. When they learn to relax the muscle in the knee, they can put that foot on the next step. Another hallmark of beginning climbers is putting one foot up a step, (always the same one) then bringing the other foot up to join it. The big switch to alternating legs may not come for several more months.

Living through your child's obsession with stairs is nerve-racking, but with practice he'll become adept. Just be sure to install safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs so he can't climb them without you.

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