Your baby’s ability to move her body follows a recognised order of developmental milestones. A newborn baby has very little control over her own body and instead has a series of reflexes, such as the grasp reflex.
Gross motor skills and fine motor skills
Gross motor skills develop first – this means the ability to move and control hands, arms, legs and feet. Finally your baby will begin to develop fine motor skills such as a pincer hold, which allows her to pick up and control small objects in her fingers.
Here are some general guidelines for the normal range of times (you’ll see how long they are – babies vary enormously) over which your baby should develop the various finer coordination abilities. If your baby is older than this and hasn’t started on these things at all, do get them checked out by your GP. Remember that premature babies will usually take longer to develop these skills, taking into account their expected birthday not their birth date.
My baby is holding my hand – is she grasping already?
Newborn babies have an automatic grasp reflex that they are not in control of. By around two months, the baby’s cortex starts to take over in her brain, giving more voluntary control of movement. The ability to make a controlled grasp develops at around four months. This is part of the baby’s instinctive drive to learn to use tools – an inherent part of being human.
When will my baby start holding things like a rattle?
Reaching out to hold a rattle requires hand-eye coordination. This means your baby’s eyes need to tell her hand exactly where to move and how to grasp and reach for an object. The brain controls the coordination between both eyes (binocular vision) and the hand that is doing the grasping.
Because we generally find this easy as able-bodied adults we expect babies to reach for things really quickly, but of course it isn’t so straightforward for a baby. To help your baby learn you need to have a lot of patience, and sometimes you may have to wait for quite a long time before she is able to make the ‘calculations’ and have a go herself.
From around four months the hand-eye coordination really starts to develop. It may be that your baby isn’t quite there yet, so it’s really important to give her the time and space to try things out. So if you are holding something up, she may see the object and then look at her hand and then look at the object again, and it might take her quite a while before she’s actually ready to reach out and take it. If you give up before this you’re missing out on something, so it’s really important to be present and allow things to happen at their own pace.
Babies begin to hold simple objects like rattles at between three and five months of age. Your baby should be able to grasp a rattle or another large object with her hand, while reaching for it takes much more time.
You can encourage your baby by giving her bright and interesting things to hold. You don’t need to buy expensive things, you can use anything; soft balls, bits of clothing, an apple – anything she can touch, smell, bite and play with. All this holding will help her develop her grasping skill. Always supervise babies when they have objects to hold as they sometimes bash themselves or put things in their mouths that might be a choking risk.
When will my baby start picking up small things?
One thing that sets us apart from nearly every other animal is the ability to grasp delicate objects between our thumb and forefinger. At first this develops as your baby learns to hold on to big things, then gradually she’ll refine this ability and be able to pick up smaller objects between her thumb and forefinger. This ability is the basis for nearly everything we do as adults: writing, holding a knife and fork, dressing ourselves, and so on.
Between six and 11 months of age, your baby should develop the ability to pick up small objects between her thumb and finger. This is sometimes called a pincer grip, though she probably won’t be able to do it perfectly until around 15 months. You can help develop this skill by holding out little things that she’ll want to pick up – like raisins – or anything she won’t choke on. Little toys are not a good idea, for this reason!
When will my baby start clapping and waving?
By around nine to 13 months, your baby might be enjoying playing pat-a-cake, clapping and waving bye-bye. Babies love copying you, so the best way to encourage these skills is by doing them together as a game. At around nine months, your baby probably won’t be able to clap on her own yet, but you can gently hold her hands and clap them together for her, which she’ll enjoy and may remember for the next time.
My baby seems to like throwing things around and knocking things down – is this normal?
Once babies have developed the ability to pick things up, the ability to throw things usually comes quite quickly! It’s part of normal development and should really be encouraged. Your baby is not being naughty.
My baby is using both hands equally. Is she ambidextrous?
No. All babies usually use both hands equally until around 18 months, when they start to favour the left or right hand. If she seems to be very right handed or very left handed early on, mention this to your doctor as it might mean she is less able to use one arm or hand.