When it comes to milestones, walking gets most of the fanfare. But mastering fine motor skills is no small feat. Whereas learning how to crawl or run calls for boundless energy, learning to pick up a diced peach or to button a shirt requires something children don't have in such large supply: patience.
"The hand is very complex," says Daniela Corbetta, PhD, 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 of 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.
It's not until about 2 months of age that babies even realize they have hands. 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, baby won't bat at the toy or wave his arm about before landing on it, as he would have just a few months ago. Now he'll grab for that irresistible toy with a raking grasp. While an improvement on swiping, it's still primitive because it ignores his thumb. This is because hand motor development moves from the pinky upward to the thumb.
Until now, the main interest in an object was getting it (then putting it in his 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!) -- banging or shaking it, for example. Then, at 8 months, baby will start to strategize. Hold a spoon in front of his face. If he sees that it's vertical, he knows he has to rotate his wrist as if preparing to shake a hand. If it's horizontal, he'll turn his wrist flat so he can grab it. He'll easily seize the spoon because he's mastered something called anticipatory behavior. And just like that, your baby has hit a major milestone: He has learned how to solve the problem of, "I want that cool thing. How do I get it?"
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 herself in the face with it as she attempts to get it into her mouth, then you've seen that this is not an easy task. Finesse is especially important once baby starts using her pincer grasp (using the index finger and thumb in concert) to pick up small objects, such as a cereal puff. If she applies too much force, that yummy "O" will turn to crumbs in her fingertips.
But learning to pick up an item is just half the skill -- letting go is the other half. And 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."
From 18 months until their second birthday, children will be fascinated with the wonders of sculpting clay. They will struggle with and then master a three-part form-board puzzle. By age 3, 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.
This is especially evident when baby is learning to stack blocks. By age 1, she should be able to build a four-block tower. By age 2, she 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.
A 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, PhD, instructor at Erikson Institute, in Chicago. This is because scribbling is the precursor to writing actual letters. This motor babbling, as 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," 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 he 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. Know that one day, your child will sit quietly, trying to pop that raisin right into his mouth, or he'll spend hours with a coloring book, and you might finally find the time to finish that cup of coffee.
Here are some ways to help your child develop his muscles and hone his talents.
There is an orderly progression 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 progress seems slow. Still, there are some red flags, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They include:
A "busy box" with a bead maze on top and activities on all sides gives baby a lot to do. This is Infantino Fun Cube ($22-$26; Toys "R" Us).
Crayola Beginnings get toddlers scribbling with markers and crayons called TaDoodles ($6 for three; crayolastore.com).
One if the best rattles doesn't even look like a rattle -- it's the Skwish, from Manhattan Toys, and babies love it ($15; amazon.com).
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.
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