How to Encourage Fine Motor Skill Development

Believe it or not, learning to shake a rattle is tough work. Here's how to help your baby develop their fine motor skills.

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 their fine motor skills. Here's what to expect in the first 12 months.

An image of a baby playing on a couch.

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0 to 3 Months

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

These tactics can help develop your baby's fine motor skills:

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

4 to 6 Months

This is a crucial period in the development of your baby's fine motor skills. During these months, they'll start learning to coordinate thoughts with hand movements. They won't just pick up any old toy; they'll reach for, grab, and mouth their favorites. They'll also begin grabbing their own hands and feet and transferring objects from hand to hand, which teaches cause and effect.

These tactics can help develop your baby's fine motor skills:

  • Play pat-a-cake or "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" with your baby to help improve their 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 their side, their motor skills are challenged in different ways and develop more thoroughly.

7 to 9 Months

By now, your baby is a master at handling their toys. Banging, shaking, dropping, and even throwing them are routine play. Their biggest challenge during these months will be learning how to feed themselves. (They'll probably wedge the food into their fist, but getting it into their mouth is another story.) By the end of this period, your child's pincer skills will develop, allowing them to self-feed and grip a Cheerio between their thumb and forefinger.

These tactics can help develop your baby's fine motor skills:

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

10 to 12 Months

During this stage, your baby refines what they know and advances to harder tasks, such as operating their fingers independently of one another. (That means that the inside of their nose and ears, as well as yours, suddenly become tunnels for exploration.) Your child will start pointing and using hand signals to let you know they want to be held or picked up. They'll also start clapping along to music and willingly reaching for and holding your hand.

These tactics can help develop your baby's fine motor skills:

  • Tie short pieces of colored yarn to each of their fingers so they 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 their fingers independently, so invest in some clay and let them poke to their heart's content.
  • Babies this age understand dozens of words, so ask your child to perform tasks that challenge their motor coordination and understanding of cause and effect, such as squeezing a squeaky toy.
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