All About Your Baby's Fine Motor Skill Development

Once babies discover their hands—and start to figure out how they work—a world of learning awaits. Discover some of the fine motor milestones that are ahead for your baby.

baby motor skills
Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

When it comes to baby milestones, gross motor skills like walking tend to get the most fanfare. But mastering fine motor skills is no small feat. While learning how to crawl, climb, and run calls for boundless energy, learning to pick up a diced peach or to button a shirt requires something young children don't have in such large supply: patience. And heck, you might need some patience as you await some of the milestones too.

To help get you and your baby through the learning curve, here are some of the different fine motor milestones to know, and how you can support and encourage them.

What to Know About Your Baby's Fine Motor Skills

"The hand is very complex," says Daniela Corbetta, Ph.D., who studies infant fine motor development as an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "There are joints and muscles that need to be organized and can be moved in very different ways. Babies need to differentiate those sets of muscles to use their fingers, their hands, and their arms in a very fine-tuned fashion."

The first year of life lays the foundation for fine motor development. Children then spend the next two years mastering these skills. All of these advancements not only help kids become more independent, but also teach fundamental lessons in problem-solving, communication, and how their body works.

Obtaining objects

It's not until about 2 months of age that babies even realize they have hands. But between 2 and 4 months, they'll see something and try to get it with their hands. They'll swipe at the toy, only occasionally hitting it. But accuracy will gradually improve.

By 6 months, your baby won't bat at the toy or wave their arm about before landing on it, as they would have just a few months ago. Now they will grab for that irresistible toy with a raking grasp. While an improvement on swiping, it ignores the thumb. This is because hand motor development moves from the pinky upward to the thumb.

Until now, your baby's main interest in an object was simply getting it (then putting it in their mouth to explore it). But at around 6 months of age, your baby is more likely to do something with the toy (or spoon or remote!) like banging or shaking it, for example.

Then, at 8 months, your baby will start to strategize. Hold a spoon in front of their face. If they see that it's vertical, your baby will know that they have to rotate their wrist as if preparing to shake a hand. If it's horizontal, they will turn their wrist flat so they can grab it. They will easily seize the spoon because they have mastered something called anticipatory behavior.

And just like that, your baby has hit a major milestone: They have learned how to solve the problem of, "I want that cool thing. How do I get it?"

toddler holding cereal
Linda Farwell

Picking up and letting go

Along with fine motor development, babies have to learn another new skill: finesse. If you've ever seen an infant grab for a toy and then smack themselves in the face with it as they attempt to get it into their mouth, then you know that this is no easy task.

Finesse is especially important once babies start using their pincer grasp (using the index finger and thumb in concert) to pick up small objects when eating finger foods, such as a cereal puff. If they apply too much force, that yummy "O" will turn to crumbs in their fingertips.

But learning to pick up an item is just half the skill—letting go is the other half. Once babies learn to let go, they begin to understand that different tactics are required depending on the size and weight of the object—and whether they want to put it on a table or throw it on the floor.

"They are constantly learning how to grade their movements," says pediatric occupational therapist Leilanie Antipolo, of the Children's Hospital of Orange County in California. "This is how we learn the difference between the amount of force used on a Styrofoam cup versus a glass cup versus a plastic cup."

As kids get older, this skill will evolve. For instance, by age 1, your baby should be able to build a four-block tower. By age 2, they should be able to use six blocks. Stacking the blocks requires the ability not only to pick up each block but to release it gently and accurately. Over time, babies learn to manage the grasp, timing, and release necessary for stacking.

These fine motor skills will have plenty of practical applications, too. By age 3, for example, they'll be able to work with a pair of scissors (supervised, of course), get a floppy string through a small bead hole, and figure out how to use one hand to hold a piece of paper still while using the other to color with crayons.

Don't be surprised if these relatively quiet activities leave your child exhausted and flustered—especially if that bead just won't get on that string. "Those smaller muscles tire quickly," Antipolo says.

baby reading book
Linda Farwell

Expression through movement

Another major milestone of fine motor development is the ability to hold a crayon. "A scribble a day brings a writer your way," says occupational therapist Jennifer Rosinia, Ph.D., an instructor at Erikson Institute in Chicago. This is because scribbling is the precursor to writing actual letters.

This motor babbling, as Dr. Rosinia calls it, begins at 15 to 18 months, when toddlers will scratch lines across sheet after sheet of paper. By age 3, many children have mastered both the straight and curved lines necessary to write the alphabet.

Fine motor skills also allow you to play games with your baby. This, too, lays the groundwork for communication. "That back-and-forth play of rolling a ball is the beginning of a conversation," Dr. Rosinia says.

So if your scrapbook carefully documents the date of your baby's first step or first word, consider adding some other memorable milestones, such as the first time they put together a puzzle or built a tower. After all, while walking and running are the skills that are going to wear you out as a parent, fine motor skills are the ones that will save your sanity. One day, your child will sit quietly, trying to pop that raisin right into their mouth or spend hours with a coloring book, and you might finally find the time to finish that cup of coffee.

toddler with toy
Linda Farwell

How to Help Your Baby Build Their Fine Motor Skills

Your child will develop their fine motor skills as they grow older, but here are some ways to help support this process from the beginning.

  • Give your infant tummy time every day so they can build up the muscles in their back and shoulders.
  • When your baby is ready to start solids, offer age-appropriate finger foods that they can try to pick up and get into their mouth.
  • At age 1, encourage activities that require picking an item up and stacking or dropping it into a container like a box or basket.
  • Starting around 18 months, encourage your child to use crayons and sculpting clay.
  • By age 2, start enlisting your child's help in the kitchen; ask them to help stir the batter or cut shapes out of cookie dough.
  • By age 3, introduce basic safety scissors and glue sticks as new exciting challenges.
baby with blocks
Linda Farwell

Fine Motor Milestone Timeline

While babies develop at different paces, it can be helpful to have an idea of what fine motor skills to look out for and when. The following are some fine motor milestones you can expect to see in your baby's first three years.

By 1 month

  • Exhibits a grasping reflex, where they tightly grab onto a finger
  • Hands remain in clenched fists most of the time
  • Puts their fist in their mouth (although it will take a few tries to get there)

1 to 6 months

  • Hands are half-opened most of the time
  • Practices opening and closing hands
  • Swipes at dangling objects
  • Uses a clawlike or raking motion (fingers and thumbs together) to grab things
  • Uses their hands to explore their body
  • Grasps and shakes handheld toys

7 to 12 months

  • Develops pincer grasp
  • Delights at picking up and dropping toys
  • Starts to stack blocks (up to four blocks by age 1)
  • Transfers items from one hand to the other, turns them from side to side, and twists them upside down

1 to 2 years

  • Recognizes names
  • Imitates behavior
  • Forms simple sentences
  • Follows instructions
  • Eats with a spoon
  • Holds a cup with one hand
  • Walks and runs
  • Can climb stairs without help

2 to 3 years

  • Turns doorknobs
  • Puts pegs in holes (circles first, and then squares)
  • Starts to draw (often with large, sweeping lines and swirls)
  • Takes off shoes and unzips a zipper
  • Uses a fork
  • Starts to paint and play with clay
  • Draws a circle
  • Talks well enough to be understood most of the time

When to Speak to a Doctor

There is a typical progression when it comes to acquiring fine motor skills. But its pace is often uneven and can be easily interrupted by a new fixation, such as learning to walk. Don't be too concerned if your baby's progress seems slow. It's important to keep in mind that your child will develop at their own pace.

Still, missed milestones can signal a problem, which is why your child's doctor will ask about your child's development during routine well visits. Between pediatrician visits, keep an eye out for the following potential red flags:

  • By 2 months, your baby has not "discovered" their hands.
  • By 3 months, your baby does not grab your finger and cannot hold their head up well.
  • By 4 months, your baby does not grab for toys or bring objects to their mouth.
  • By 7 months, they reach with only one hand and have difficulty getting objects into their mouth.
  • By 1 year, they are not waving, shaking their head "no," or pointing to objects.
  • By 15 months, they do not seem to know how to use forks, spoons, or other common household objects and are not using a pincer grasp.
  • By age 3, they can't build a tower of more than four blocks, have trouble manipulating small objects, cannot draw a circle, or show limited interest in toys.
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