Understanding baby motor skill development

The journey of your baby from curled up foetal ball to running toddler is remarkable. Even seeing this journey for the third time around with our own kids, the process doesn’t cease to amaze me. The combination of learned behaviour from watching adults (and older siblings); plus their inherent desire to interact with the world around them encourages them to follow a critical path in their development.

This magic combination works hand-in-hand with hours of practice at a variety of different exercises. Studies suggest that toddlers who are new to walking will take approx. 14,000 steps and fall about 100 times. Practice really does make perfect! This is important to remember when we think about how quick we can be as parents to rush and intervene in our baby’s development to ‘save’ them from danger. While there are things we can do to ensure their safety, a huge part of the motor skills learning curve is in failing and trying again.

 understand baby's motor skills development

What is motor skill development

Motor skills are the skills we use to move our bodies. It involves a complex mix of nerves, muscles, tendons and bones all working together. And most importantly, it requires a brain that can coordinate all these parts and remember how to repeat actions again and again.

In the first five years of your child’s life, children develop rapid in four key areas. Motor skills, cognitive skills, language and communication skills, and social and emotional skills. So motor skills are just one part of the equation for your child’s development. But crucially these skills are all interwoven. A child that is not mobile will be restricted in what they can discover around your home for example, and without discovery, cognitive and communication skills will be more limited. Motor skills are therefore an integral part of your baby’s whole development

A child’s motor skills are split into two key categories Gross motor skills and fine motor skills, referring to the sort of bodily movements you might use. Gross motor skills involve sitting, crawling, walking, throwing, skipping and other larger muscle movements. Fine motor skills involve more precise movements of fingers and include picking things up, feeding, playing and eventually writing.

Fine motor vs gross motor skills

Fine motor skills and gross motor skills work together to allow your baby to interact with the world around them. They’re important in their own right, helping your baby learn the skills to feed, walk and play. It can be tempting as parent to take over a number of these developments in order to ‘get the job done’. Spoon feeding your baby for example, feels like a fairly harmless exercise, helping make sure they get fed. But not only does it prevent your baby learning the fine motor skills they’ll need for a variety of other activities, it will also effect other developments such as their communication and cognitive skills. Establishing good fine and gross motor skills at a young age help encourage other parts of their development as well.

Fine and gross motor skills are also interlinked and need developing together. Take feeding for example, the actions of picking up food directly or a spoon to feed themselves requires a remarkable amount of intricate fine motor skills to do it correctly. But behind those more delicate skills are a set of gross motor skills we might take for granted. Your baby wont be able to start eating solid food or even think about feeding themselves until they have the core and trunk strength to be able to sit up to eat. That’s why ensuring good trunk strength through tummy time is so important and hence why we developed the Heads Up tummy time mat. Gross motor skills are vital to the development of other fine motor skills.  

Examples of gross motor skills 

Be aware of these as you’re encouraging your baby to become mobile:

  • Sitting
  • Standing
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Throwing

    These are established through getting your baby mobile from a young age. Incrementally increasing tummy time from day one is vital to developing the core, neck and shoulder strength your baby will need to reach, roll, sit and crawl. Creating a safe space where you can feel confident letting your baby roam about is also key. It doesn’t have to be a huge space, just a space where you’re not constantly having to intervene to stop what your baby is doing.

    Examples of fine motor skills

    Be aware of these as you’re encouraging your baby to develop more specific skills:

    • Buttoning and unbuttoning clothes
    • Stirring
    • Brushing teeth
    • Tying shoelaces
    • Spreading a topping
    • Peeling a fruit
    • Writing with a pencil

    The list of fine motor skills is somewhat endless. It’s just all the activities we might take for granted that we do in everyday life. They’re the intricate jobs it takes to function in day-to-day life. While it can seem quite innocuous if your child doesn’t know how to do something in day-to-day life (after all they’re typically always with an adult who can do these things for them until they are at least pre-teen anyway), they are the bases on which your kid’s confidence is built. The ability to do these things, even if they don’t ‘need’ to gives them the confidence to try more, discover and explore and this fuels their wider development as cognitive, social and emotional children. 

    10 steps of motor development for babies and toddlers

    The sequence of motor skills is important for any parent to be aware of as they try to encourage and nurture their child’s development. We often refer to these developments as ‘milestones’ and that’s helpful in so far as the timings of when certain skills should develop helps point to any issues your child is facing that are not immediately obvious. They’re great at flagging any potential learning difficulties or more serious concerns to an attentive parent. But for the most part these milestones can become a worrying burden to parents comparing their child to other’s and wondering why their child still hasn’t started walking while all their peers have.

    But the real focus for the vast majority of parents shouldn’t so much be on the timings of motor skill development as much as the sequence. These 10 steps highlight the process baby’s go through to get from curled up ball to walking toddler. And being aware of these steps can be super useful in helping parents understand how to create the right environment to encourage their baby to push through to the next developmental challenge.

    1. Baby is in feotal postura (newborn)
    2. Baby can hold chin up (happens at approx. 1 month)
    3. Baby holds chest up (happens at approx. 2 months)
    4. Baby sits when supported (happens at approx. 4 months)
    5. Baby can sit alone unaided (happens at approx. 7 months)
    6. Baby can stand up when holding furniture (happens at approx. 9 months)
    7. Baby starts crawling (happens at approx. 10 months)
    8. Baby walks if led e.g. when you hold on to both their hands (happens at approx. 11 months)
    9. Baby can stand alone unaided (happens at approx. 11 months)
    10. Baby starts to walk alone unaided (happens at approx. 12 months)

    These guidelines are drawn from a normal distribution of case studies, or in other words, the guidelines will apply to the majority of all babies. Assume your baby is in that average. But for every average there are long tails and if your baby does it slightly differently or is taking longer, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything to worry about. Sometimes a baby that’s struggling to push through to crawling or walking just needs a little bit of encouragement and the right environment. Concentrating on encouraging them and creating a space that gives them the freedom to explore and try for themselves is the best thing you can do for them as a parent.

    Signs your baby is ready to start walking include them walking with assistance such as holding your hand as they walk

    The 6 signs your baby is about to start walking

    One of the most powerful memories for any parent is their baby’s first steps. It’s one of those moments where you can pat yourself on the back as a parent and wonder how you managed to get them to this point!

    But it can be a bit of an intimidating time for some parents if their baby is struggling to push through to the walking stage. It’s a stage where parents can get easily bogged down by comparisons to other kids. And while there’s no formula for getting your baby walking, there are some signs your baby is getting there and some ways you can help facilitate that leap your baby needs to take.

    1. Your baby is able to pull themselves into a stand by holding onto furniture
    2. Your baby’s is cruising around, holding onto furniture and finding ways to make steps
    3. Your baby is starting to make leaps between furniture as they hold on (resist the temptation to be constantly leaping to their ‘rescue’)
    4. Crying, fussing and changes to sleep patterns. These are big features of any developmental change. Sometimes referred to as sleep regressions, they’re disruptive to routines, but typically lead to big leaps forward in development.
    5. Walking with help. Just holding your hands and walking, or with support from a walking toy.
    6. Standing by themselves is also a big sign that they’re about to walk. It’s hard for a baby to free-stand without adjusting their balance and moving their feet and so it can be a very short leap from that to walking by themselves

    How to encourage your baby’s motor development

    Baby milestones can be quite depressing for parents. There’s so many reasons to believe you’re failing as a parent and looking at a chart of when your baby ‘should’ be doing things and seeing they’re not isn’t particularly helpful – especially for a new parent. Much of what we do as parents will already encourage baby’s development and the rest is just up to them. Patience is so often the key in these things.

    However, there are things we take for granted in our baby’s motor development that maybe we shouldn’t. Especially as new parents, it can be hard to know what to do to help your baby build the motor skills they need. Given how motor skills have a knock-on effect with wider developmental skills (cognitive, communication and social skills) it’s important to lay the ground work for their development.

    Tummy time is an essential activity for building baby's gross motor skills

    Ways to encourage your baby's motor development

    • Giving your baby lots of positive reinforcement with words, smiles and cuddles when they make progress towards new motor developments.
    • Encourage, comfort and set your baby straight again when they have a fall. You don’t need to baby proof they’re environment to nth degree, but better to feel confident your baby will be okay and allow them to fall than constantly be intervening to prevent a fall because they might do themselves real damage.
    • Create safe, incremental challenges for your baby. A baby’s field of confidence with different motor skills wont expand if there’s no incentive to do so. If you’re constantly giving them what they need to hand they’ll have no reason to reach. Create challenges to slowly extend their skills and encourage them to take the next step.
    • Give your baby space for them to come to you. This can be as simple as being in a different room for them to learn to crawl or roll to come and find you (there’s something eerily magnetic about baby’s coming to find you in the house). Or it could be stepping away from them and encouraging them to walk to you.

    12 toys and activities to encourage your baby’s gross and fine motor development

    1. Rattles and shakers are great play toys full stop. But they’re also great at associating baby’s movements with noises that engage them. It builds early awareness of their hands and feet which is essential to them learning how to use them.
    2. Tummy time is something we’re passionate about at GRASP. Which is why we developed the Heads Up tummy time play mat to engage baby’s in sensory play and encourage them to spend longer on their front building up core, neck and shoulder strength for a range of motor skills.
    3. Sensory play of all kinds can encourage baby’s to improve coordination between their hands and eye’s and establish important brain pathways between the actions they take and the response of things in the world around them.
    4. Mark making is a great way to help strengthen fine motor skills. Giving little kids chunky crayons to draw with helps build shoulder and forearm strength to begin with, before developing into strong finger and wrist control..
    5. Bath time play is a great way to build bodily awareness as well as developing a range of other motor skills like pouring that they might not get to do elsewhere in life.
    6. Threading with beads or ‘sewing’ shoelaces through card is a great way to help kids develop strong finger and wrist motor skills as well as the coordination to do it.
    7. Playdough offers a variety of activities; from squeezing, to rolling to cutting that they wont get in routine play. Playdough strengthens hands and gets fingers working in a range of motions.
    8. Brushing teeth is a more advance skills, but it’s an excellent test of fine motor skills, require control and coordination of movements either when you can’t see what you’re doing or by operating in reverse (if you’re using a mirror). Try getting your toddlers to do a little ‘brushing’ practise every time you brush their teeth
    9. Shape sorting is a simple game that gives baby’s very important pincer and palmer grasp practise.
    10. Throwing balls builds core, neck and shoulder strength. For baby’s that are confident sitting up or standing, it can be a great a challenge of balance that takes them to the next development milestone of walking or crawling.
    11. Drinking from an open cup requires a lot of skill (and typically can be quite messy) but the coordination and care needed builds exceptional shoulder and hand strength as well as excellent coordination
    12. Getting your baby to start dressing themselves at a young age is a great way to build balance, large muscle coordination (legs / arms / core) and the fine motor skills of pinching and pulling needed to drag clothes over skin.

    Your baby’s motor skills development will happen in large part because you’re an attentive parent. It will also happen in large part because you’re encouraging and supportive without trying to do everything for your baby. Letting them explore, build confidence and establish skills for themselves is the best way to ensure they develop a wide range of gross and fine motor skills at a young age.

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

    How to make tummy time more fun

    Read how the Heads Up play mat we designed to make tummy time easier for our own babies could transform tummy time struggles in to sensory play joy!