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.
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.
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.
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.
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.