Have you heard some fancy terms floating around about your baby’s development? Are fine- and gross motor skills a complete mystery to you? Have you been told that you need to improve your baby’s motor skills based on a so-called “milestone”?
Fear not. Motor skills are an important part of your baby’s development, but it’s not your job as a parent to develop them for your baby! In fact, your baby will develop his own motor skills in his own time.
Still, there are simple approaches you can take to support the natural development of your baby’s motor skills. Let’s first talk a little bit about what fine- and gross motor skills are, and which ones your baby will exhibit. Then we’ll look at some activities you can do with your baby to encourage their motor skill development.
Grab your coffee and settle in, because we’re about to get skilled up in here.
What are motor skills?
“Motor” is referring to motion, so we are talking about your baby’s movement here. There are 2 different types of motor skills: fine motor skills and gross motor skills.
Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are everything to do with the muscles of the hand. They involve precision and concentration. Here are some examples of how you use fine motor skills:
Gross motor skills, on the other hand, require larger muscle groups and more energy. Here are some examples of how you use gross motor skills:
Sliding onto a barstool
Throwing the opening pitch at a major-league baseball game
Driving your car
Slow dancing with your wife of 50 years
Mowing your lawn
What do the above examples of fine- and gross motor skills have in common? I specifically chose items that really only adults accomplish. However, you will see your child begin to exhibit similar motor skills as their muscles develop.
Our kids are always observing us and they try to imitate our movements. Go back and read those lists again. If you have an infant, I am sure you can picture them doing similar activities adapted to their own developmental age.
For example, my daughter enjoys jabbing her fingers onto my phone screen (or things she thinks are phone screens). She also attempts to play the piano, whether it’s with our Yamaha keyboard or her own toy piano. What about sliding onto a barstool? Well, C can now climb in and out of seats of various kinds. Sadly, she doesn’t mow our lawn yet, but she pushes all sorts of things around the house in similar fashion.
What motor skills should your baby have?
This is a question a lot of mamas want to know the answer to. Remember, don’t ride or die by milestones. I am not going to put them here. All babies will develop in their own time.
Here are some motor skills your baby will develop:
Follow objects with her eyes
Turn over from her back to her tummy and vice-versa
Bring objects to her mouth
Lift her head and shoulders up while lying on her stomach
Touch her feet with her hands while lying on her back
Reach for and grab nearby objects
Put weight on her legs when held in a standing position
Sit up straight without help
Creep (resembles slithering along the floor on her stomach)
Achieve a standing position when holding onto an object for support
Hold feeding utensils (spoon, bottle)
Test gravity by letting food and other objects fall to the floor
Transfer objects into and out of containers (in French, this is called transvaser, and it’s a Montessori activity)
How you can support your baby’s motor skills
You do not need to force a particular motor skill to develop—your baby will do this work on their own.
Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE parenting, says it best in her book (speaking about a colleague, Dr. Pikler):
After receiving her medical degree in Vienna while working at the famous Pirquet Clinic, she became particularly interested in the physiology of gross motor development—as it occurs in a healthy, well-cared-for infant who is neither restricted nor taught, as contrasted with the usual artificial motor development which is the result of propping, positioning and using restrictive devices (bouncer, infant seat or walkers, etc.). Dr. Pikler postulated that, not only do these two different practices affect motor development, but they influence all other areas of growth—social, emotional, cognitive—and even character formation. She became an advocate of “non-interference”—of allowing motor development at the infant’s own rate. By allowing the child freedom of movement, she suggested, parents would develop respect for their baby’s individual tempo and style in other areas of development as well.
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect by Magda Gerber, pages 187-188 (emphasis mine)
The following are tips for providing the right conditions in order for your baby’s motor skills to develop naturally.
You should first spend time consciously observing your baby’s movements so you can get a sense of their stage of motor development.
At first, it might not look like he’s “doing” much. A baby’s movements look very different from an adult’s. But as adults, we’ve had our entire lives to practice and refine our movements.
Here’s a little exercise for you. Imitate each and every movement your baby makes, no matter how small. Do this for a few minutes and observe how much energy and coordination it actually takes to make even the simplest of movements. You’ll be amazed!
Skip tummy time. I’m dubbing this backy time! I don’t know why American mamas are told to put their babies on their tummies, while French mamas are told to put their babies on their backs. If you don’t know about backy time, let me tell you the benefits.
On his back, your baby can more easily turn his head from side to side to examine his environment, while still developing the same muscles in his neck that will allow him to one day lift it unaided.
In addition, your baby can move his arms and legs more freely. He will begin to touch his hands to his feet.
Place interesting objects nearby, like toys or objects with different colors and textures. You can also hang a mobile above your baby’s head, or place a mirror in his line of sight.
This position allows even more freedom of movement for your baby, while still supporting muscle development.
If you want to promote the development of your baby’s motor skills, there are a number of activities you can try. Don’t force anything; keep it light, keep it fun. But do supervise!
For fine motor skills
Read a book with your baby and have her practice turning the pages
Make a sensory bag with objects of different textures inside and have your baby pull them out one by one
Let your baby touch and manipulate everyday objects (zippers, shoelaces, elastics, buttons, buckles, etc.)
Transvaser (Montessori transfer work)—putting any small objects into a larger container, taking them out again, rinse and repeat
For gross motor skills
Allow your baby to climb (up steps, onto a bed, onto a couch, onto a chair)
Practice rolling, kicking, or throwing a soft ball
Allow your baby to push objects around on the floor using her arms in a standing position
Devise a tunnel made of blankets or cardboard for your baby to crawl through
As you can see, you don’t need to buy anything fancy or expensive in order to foster your baby’s motor skills. In fact, by simply letting her explore her environment without restriction and under your supervision, you are doing enough!
Now you’re motoring, baby
I hope I was able to demystify for you the terms fine- and gross motor skills. Sometimes we use fancy-sounding jargon when we’re talking about babies. It’s not because your baby’s development is complicated—it’s because it’s fascinating!
Now you know what fine- and gross motor skills are, what kind of motor skills your baby should have before 12 months, and how to support the natural development of your baby’s motor skills.
For further reading, I would recommend you check out these posts:
Connect with your preverbal baby using these basic communication tips — Studies have shown that motor skills are closely linked to language development. For a holistic approach to fostering your baby’s motor skills, you can foster language skills at the same time!
Jessica is an American expat living the dream in Normandy. She is wife to a French hubby and mama to a Franco-American daughter, born in 2018, and one whippet. Passionate about all stages of writing, this Francophile created her blog in 2020 to help others navigate motherhood with a focus on conscious parenting and bilingual parenting. Bonne lecture !
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