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Infancy Physical Development: Fine Motor Skills

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Fine motor skills develop alongside gross motor skills. Beyond just learning how to use and manipulate their bodies in large movements, babies are learning how to use their hands and how to coordinate smaller movements with their senses, such as sight. Like the gross motor skill development, fine motor development comes gradually as infants build one skill on top of previous skills.

Like others before it, this section will discusses development in terms of age-related milestones. Once again, it is important to remember that children are unique and grow at their own rate and speed. There is a wide range of healthy ages at which babies can acquire these abilities. Theoretically, babies could develop ahead of the average on their gross motor skills and behind average with their fine motor skills, or babies could develop one milestone later than average but develop the next milestone before the average age. The important thing to gather from this article is the general pattern children follow as their bodies and minds mature, so you are best prepared to give adequate support and nurturing.

From birth to around 2 months, babies are "pre-reaching." They will extend their arm and hand toward an object that interests them, but they will rarely be able to make hand contact with that object. It's important to remember that in those two early months, baby's vision is beginning to develop the acuity and focus needed to grab an object they see. As their eyesight matures, babies can reach with more accuracy and make contact with objects, usually around age 3 months. Between the ages of 3 and 4 months, babies begin holding objects between their palm and their enclosed fingers in a clumsy ulnar grasp. By age 4 months, they will want to practice that hold, and will reach for anything in their line of sight. In another month or so, babies will be able to transfer objects from one hand to the other, as they are now able to sit up and play. It's important to remember that at this age, 5 months, babies are able to handle and pick up larger objects, but they will still only be able to touch and scratch at smaller objects such as a piece of cereal. By around age 6 months, babies are refining their ability to manipulate objects as they learn by using their hands and mouths.

In the second half of the first year, babies continue to mature in their ability to use their hands and can manipulate even smaller objects. Around age 7 months, they can grasp pellet-sized objects crudely between their thumbs and the side of their forefingers, and between ages 7 to 9 months, most babies can pick up and drink from a cup. By around age 9 months, babies refine their ability to grasp tiny objects as they hold them between their thumb and forefinger in a pincer grasp. Another refinement around age 9 months is that babies can now set down larger objects gently where they want to place them rather than just flinging them down when they're finished with them. Furthermore, by around age 10 or 11 months, they can also place smaller pellet-sized objects, like bite-sized cereal, where they want to, such as in a bowl or cup. By age 12 months, babies can now use their hands independently of one another in play. This will enable them to manipulate tools in the next year.

In the second year of life, toddlers begin using their hands for more tasks than just playing with toys and eating. By around age 15 months, toddlers begin to use tools such as cups, spoons, and crayons. They can begin feeding themselves with utensils. They can also open cabinets and drawers, so parents need to be sure that their homes are baby proofed in ways such as putting hazardous chemicals and cleaning supplies in high cabinets and putting locks on cabinets and drawers that are not safe for young children (Babyproofing). At this age, they can also turn pages in a book and build towers of 2 to 3 large blocks. By 18 months, toddlers are refining their ability to use tools such as crayons, and they can now draw lines and rough circles rather than just scribbling on a page. By age 21 months, they also have the ability to undress themselves and help dress themselves, as they may be able to manipulate larger buttons or zippers. By age 24 months, toddlers can use their hands with more dexterity as they can unwrap birthday presents or do simple puzzles. Their fine motor skills will continue to improve in the coming years.

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