You've been amazed by each of your baby's big motor milestones. By now, she most likely rolls over and sits up. She might even be scooting on her bottom, crawling, or pulling herself up to a stand as she constantly launches herself into a world that beckons just out of reach.
Between 10 and 12 months, there are equally exciting -- though often overlooked -- motor skill developments involving baby's hands. For example, you're out walking your baby in the stroller when she suddenly points to a dog and squeals. Or your baby's in her high chair when she deliberately picks up her sippy cup and drops it on the floor. These milestones don't get the same play as walking, but they're just as important to her development, indicating that your clever baby is now trying to master the world in a whole new way: with her tiny fingers.
The motor areas of a baby's brain mature in a head-to-toe sequence, with brain areas that control the head and neck muscles maturing before those that take charge of controlling trunk, arm, and hand muscles. The areas of the brain controlling the legs are the last to develop. Why is this? Put simply, it's probably because a baby needs to know how to suck and feed himself before he needs to walk.
When your baby was born, he held his arms and hands tucked close to his body, a position called "flexion." Over the past months, his hand and arm motions have become less reflexive and random; by 6 months he can grasp a toy -- but only using his whole hand. To understand how limiting this is, watch a 6-month-old holding his pacifier. He has little control of his hands -- he may fling his arm around, hit himself in the head by accident, and mistakenly drop it -- then look frantically around wondering what happened to it. Or he may want to let go of it, but be unable to release his fingers, banging the paci on the floor in frustration.
Fast-forward a few months, and your baby is on the verge of mastering a crucial milestone: Between 10 and 12 months, she develops the "pincer grasp," the ability to use the thumb and forefinger together to grasp and manipulate objects, or pick up a pea or a Cheerio. Pointing or poking at toys is a precursor to this all-important event, indicating that she has the ability to move her index finger separately from the rest of her hand. "Eventually, your baby's fine motor skills will allow her to program a computer or play the flute, but this period of development is just as amazing," promises Barry Solomon, MD, an assistant professor of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "This is an exciting time for babies, because fine motor skills let them analyze and learn about the world in different ways," he explains.
For instance, once your baby can use the pincer grasp to pick up an object between her thumb and first digit and then drop it deliberately in favor of a more appealing object, she'll start running a host of experiments. She might throw her dish or cup off the high chair again and again to explore cause and effect. Will the dish always make the same noise when it hits the floor? Will the same sticky stuff cover my tray and clothes? Will the dog come into the kitchen if it hears the dish? Will Mom laugh, or will she say "no"? Indeed, the world opens up in all kinds of new ways -- cabinet doors that were previously off-limits when closed can now be opened. Toys that could only be shaken or batted at before can now be rotated, poked, and probed. Toddlers also love any toys with holes that they can put things through, things with lids or doors that open and close, or toys that spin.
By 12 months, with fingers and thumb working together, baby should be able to build a two-block tower (then knock it down), and nest smaller objects inside larger ones and take them out again, says Dr. Solomon. Filling and dumping (especially dumping) are also new favorites. These activities spur cognitive leaps, as your baby learns concepts like big and little, and full and empty.
In the right mood, your baby might even "help" you dress or undress him by raising his arms and curling his hands into fists deliberately. He'll clap when he's happy and wave bye-bye more, too, now that he knows this gesture goes with that phrase.
"This is the age of imitation," notes Sybil Hart, PhD, associate dean of research for Texas Tech University's College of Human Sciences. "Your baby will want to do everything you do."
Scientists have measured the hormone cortisol in infant saliva to show that infants as young as 4 months can feel frustrated, and you'll probably see signs of this as your baby grows. Here's what's going on, from baby's point of view.
Once your baby turns 1, and has better communication skills, some of her frustration should abate. "When she's crying in her crib and you call to tell her you're coming, she may stop, because she knows that you're on your way," says Hart.
Most babies pull themselves up to a stand between 10 and 12 months; of course, some do it earlier and even walk before their first birthday, and others are a little later. Whenever it happens, pulling to stand is a major milestone for babies, not just physically, but emotionally, says Hart. "Once a baby is upright, he's in a better position to make eye contact and interact socially." Indeed, standing changes the way your baby interacts with his environment, as it "multiplies his opportunities for exploration and bolsters his confidence," explains Lise Eliot, PhD, author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Bantam). How exactly? Your baby's vertical stance allows for a new visual perspective, a better reach to grab objects, and a greater sense of equality with other upright humans.
Once your baby can stand, it's difficult to get him to sit. You may just get him settled in his high chair when he'll twist around and try to stand. Standing is your baby's top priority now, as he practices balancing in preparation for taking those first steps.
Holly Robinson lives with her five children outside of Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, January 2006.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.