Immediately after birth, babies appear unable to do anything. They flail around their arms and legs and can't even hold their head up. By the age of three, however, children are already like little tornadoes. They are pretty good not only at walking, but also running, jumping, climbing and throwing a ball.
In this article, we are going to look at the developmental path children have to follow to achieve that huge change. What motor skills milestones should parents watch out for? Plus, what to do and what not to do in order to foster the development of these skills?
What are gross and fine motor skills?
When we talk about motor skills, it’s important to distinguish between two types of movements, depending on which muscles are involved. On the one hand, actions like walking, running, jumping, etc. are controlled by large muscle groups. We refer to them as gross motor skills. On the other hand, the small muscles of the hands and fingers are used in fine motor skills, which aren’t less important. They are in the center of skills like dressing and undressing, self-feeding, arranging blocks, coloring, stringing beads, etc.
Both types of motor skills are closely related and especially important for development as a whole. The more children move, the more stimuli their brains receive. Along with muscles, they build their cognitive, speaking and learning skills.
Here, we are going to examine gross motor development, while fine motor development will be the topic of our next article.
Basic principles in gross motor development
Early childhood professionals use certain milestones to examine whether development is progressing normally. These are, for example, skills like sitting, standing up and walking unsupported. Each of these skills is supposed to occur within a general age range.
Milestones in motor development (and not only) follow a specific sequence, as skills build upon one another. For example, in order to walk, babies first have to learn how to sit. In addition, development also has to move forward. Regression is a signal that something may be wrong. Another basic principle is that of symmetrical development – the left and right half of the body must develop equally and simultaneously.
It’s important that mothers know these principles and contact their pediatrician if their baby doesn’t meet their developmental milestones. Conversely, the developmental path should not be a competition. Every baby is different and has their own pace. If a friend's baby has crawled or walked earlier, parents needn’t worry or force their baby to catch up. It’s best if development happens naturally.
From 0 to 6 months
Newborns have no control over their movements. They are uncoordinated and involuntary, driven primarily by reflexes. Such, for example, is the palmar grasp reflex, which causes infants to grasp their fingers tightly around anything placed in their palm.
Around the 4th month, most of these involuntary movements disappear. By then, infants should have achieved their first key motor milestone – holding their head up. When placed on their tummy, they should be able to hold their head high and steady, lift their chest up by supporting themselves on their elbows, and turn their head towards objects of interest.
After the 4th month, infants enter the period of rolling over. Rolling from tummy to back is typically the first skill to learn. Around the 6th month, infants have already mastered rolling in both directions.
- Do tummy time with your baby every day. This exercise is very beneficial for their overall muscle strength. You can start at the end of the first month, with 1-2 minutes a day, and then gradually increase the time. (Caution: Do not let your baby sleep on their tummy. Always place them on his or her back to sleep to reduce the risk of SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
- Even though infants appear largely incapable, remember that they are ready to learn from the very beginning! They need your touch, smile, talk and singing to feel safe, calm and cognitively stimulated.
- Do not leave your baby on raised surfaces like beds and change tables without supervision. Even if you've always found them in the same position you left them in, you never know when they’ll do their first rollover!
- Specialists also recommend baby gymnastics and massage from the 2nd month on, or after the baby weighs at least 4 kg. You can find ideas for exercises and techniques here.
From 6 to 12 months
The next big milestone in early development is being able to sit without support. This usually happens between the 6th and 8th months. At first, infants use their hands for balance. Eventually they learn how to sit steadily, without leaning on their hands, and with a straight back. This is a very important moment for them, because it means their hands are now free for play.
Around 9 months, many babies begin to stand on their feet, holding on to something for support. This is most often furniture at home - the baby crib, a chair, a low table or sofa. Some start crawling and some don't. About one in seven babies skip this step, and that's not a problem.
Towards the end of the first year, babies can already step forwards, backwards and sideways, holding their parents’ hands or using furniture for support. Some babies take their first independent steps. How early babies begin walking depends on factors like temperament, previous falls and experience in independent exploration. Early walking is proven to have no connection with intelligence – early walkers and late walkers are equally smart.
- Let your baby spend as much time as possible on the floor instead of in the crib, highchair, swing or your arms. This will give them the freedom to train their strength, balance and coordination without constraints. Babies who have not had the chance to move freely on the floor usually start walking a little bit later. Do not forget to secure the space around the baby so that there are no small objects, power outlets, sharp edges, etc.
- Place your baby on a blanket on the floor and leave interesting toys around, at different distances. This will encourage them to move to pick the toys up.
- Do not buy a sit-in walker for your baby. Many parents think that walkers help with walking, when in fact they slow it down.
- Do not leave your baby sitting for a long time, in your arms or propped up on pillows, because their spine isn’t strong yet and gets tired quickly.
From 1 to 2 years
Between 12 and 18 months, most children learn how to walk. At first, the gait is unsteady, with feet wide apart, knees straight and arms stretched out for balance. After that, children gradually become more confident and the gait matures.
After 18 months, children are playground-ready. They can run, squat, stand, jump over low obstacles and play with a ball. They learn how to walk up the stairs and then how to walk down, with support. If a 2-year old toddler can only go down the stairs and not up, parents should consult a doctor to check the muscle tone.
- Choose suitable walking shoes that support the ankle well. Avoid shoes that are too stiff and inelastic. It’s best to let your toddler walk barefoot as much as possible.
- There is no need to get involved in teaching your baby to walk. Instead of spending a long time assisting them by holding their hand or finger, the best practice is to let them step back and forth independently, while holding on to furniture at home or benches outside. This way, they will gradually gain confidence in their abilities and begin walking when they are completely ready, which means fewer falls.
From 2 to 3 years
By the end of the 3rd year, toddlers are already like little tornadoes. They climb up and down without assistance, go down slides, throw and catch a ball at a short distance, hop with both feet off the ground like bunnies, and walk on narrow curbs. Their motor skills continue to improve in the coming years and their muscles strengthen.
- Go out with your child as often as possible, to the park or to the playground, regardless of the season. This will boost their motor skills development and help them practice their social skills with children, while having fun playing.
- Play with your child, tag, dance, do workouts together. In this way, you will not only encourage their physical development, but will also strengthen your relationship.
So far, we’ve talked about how babies change from being largely limited in motion to energetic, agile toddlers who are always on the go.
In the next article , we are going to examine how children gradually gain better control over their hands and fingers.
These skills – gross and fine motor skills – are fundamental in a child's life. Thanks to them, children grow up healthy, smart and competent, and it makes a huge difference if parents know how to encourage them.
"Assure the best: Baby's Physical Development", a brochure by Pathways.org
"Welcome, baby", published by UNICEF Bulgaria 2018
A presentation by Dr. Lisa Shulman, Neuroscience and Society Conference, Washington DC 2015. Developmental Milestones, Birth to 2 Years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pD50ISxP3k&t=3252s
"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria."