There’s more to tracking your baby’s development than logging height and weight. Amy Plunkett examines why parents need to watch out for childhood motor development milestones.
Every infant is born with certain reflexes that help prepare for the extraordinary physical development that takes place over the first year of life. Even though a baby may be hours or just days old, these reflexes are already present and demonstrate that your baby is prepared to grow and develop gross motor skills.
As a parent, you’re in the ideal position to first identify any problems your child may be having with her motor development – and that’s important, because catching developmental problems as early as possible offers the best chance for improvement. Knowing the motor skills children develop, and the approximate timetable on which they develop them, can help you spot developmental delays.
Important developmental skills:
- Gross motor skills, such as crawling and walking.
- Fine motor skills, such as stacking blocks or colouring.
- Language skills, including speech and comprehension.
- Thinking skills.
- Social interaction.
What are gross motor skills?
Gross Motor Skills are your child’s ability to move around and use various parts of his or her body. They are the larger movements your child makes and usually involve using several parts of the body at a time. Such activities include sitting, rolling over, crawling, walking, running and jumping.
It is important for a child to be able to make physical movements that cover the entire length of their body. One important milestone is the ability to make movements that go from one side of the body to the other. This is referred to as ‘crossing the midline’. It is a skill required for a child to do tasks such throwing a ball and can affect the development of fine motor skills in the area of writing and manual dexterity. By the time your child is ready for school, they will have good control over their own body’s function.
Did you know?
The preschool years are known as the ‘golden age’ of motor development. It is during these years (three to five years of age) that important skills like running, jumping, throwing and catching are developed. Through play and physical activity, kids learn and practise skills that become building blocks for more complicated movements.
Gross motor skills continue to develop throughout childhood and on into adolescence, with children able to skip and run faster and to jump higher.
What are fine motor skills?
Fine motor skills are smaller hand related actions such as picking things up between a forefinger and thumb, holding a rattle, scribbling with a crayon or wriggling their little toes in a sandpit.
When a baby uses their tongue or lips to taste and feel objects they are also using fine motor skills. A newborn baby’s fine motor skills development starts at their head and then moves downwards throughout the body.
Your newborn baby can control their mouth, lips and tongue initially. With time and practice, your baby learns to control the movements of the rest of his body.
‘Tummy Time’ gives your baby the opportunity to strengthen various muscles while exploring their environment. As a child moves from baby to toddler, their skills develop accordingly.
By the age of two, most children will have mastered taking off their coat and shoes and drinking from a cup. During playtime, they will be able to build a tower of blocks and make definite marks on a sheet of paper with a crayon.
By the time your child reaches school going age, they should be able to dress and undress themselves, use a fork and cut out shapes using a pair of scissors.
All kids grow at different rates
Parents can sometimes feel anxious when they see someone else’s child reaching his or her developmental milestones before their own child has. It’s important to remember that all babies grow at different rates.
In Ireland, a Public Health Nurse will carry out developmental checks on babies at various stages. These are done at, birth, three months, seven months, two years and at three years your child is discharged unless there is some concern. A doctors’ developmental exam is also done between nine -12 months.
When evaluating gross motor development, your health professional will test your child’s muscle tone and strength, how loose or tight your child’s muscles are, how strong your child is and how much pressure they can apply using their hands and arms and their feet and legs.
The quality of your child’s movements will also be factored; whether your child moves particularly fast or slow, if your child’s movements jerky or smooth and how much effort is involved for your child to move around.
Developmental appointments with the Public Health Nurse and doctor are very important for your child, as they mean any problems your child may be having can be dealt with promptly and treated accordingly. An early diagnosis can improve the outcome of most conditions. Some children may require assistance from an occupational therapist in developing their fine motor skills.
Some of the tasks your child should be able to master.
Gross motor: Walk up and down stairs while holding rail; climb; run with feet wide.
Fine motor: Scribble with a crayon; feed self with a spoon.
Gross motor: Pedal a tricycle; jump from a small step.
Fine motor: Snip with scissors; put on shoes.
Gross motor: Catch a ball; walk downstairs with alternating feet.
Fine motor: Use the toilet independently; eat with a fork; hold a pencil.
Gross motor: Hop; catch small balls; walk on tiptoes.
Fine motor: Brush teeth and hair; fasten buttons and zippers.
Gross motor: Skip; perform a running kick; stand on one foot for 10 seconds.
Fine motor: Begin to tie laces; use a knife to spread; print name.
Encouraging your child’s motor development
“The development of movement is unique for each child. We know from research and observations of children there are certain milestones or stages of motor development that children generally reach by certain ages.
These stages allow us to determine what lies ahead for our child. It is important that we don’t put expectations on or try and force motor development based on these ages and stages.
In terms of gross motor development the big early developmental milestone for humans is learning to walk. This can happen anywhere between the ages of 10 to 18 months, and for some children it can be a little later. In terms of fine motor development self-feeding is a big milestone which also often happens towards the end of the first year.
Motor development happens naturally and is guided by a child’s inner drive to explore, particularly in the first year.
For a parent, encouraging motor development in the early years means taking responsibility for the child’s environment and play space.
Balancing the responsibility of safety with the baby or child’s innate desire to explore and move is the big challenge for parents.
Providing floor space with a range of interesting toys and objects, in which the child/baby will be motivated to try and reach and explore, is the best way to do this. As the baby’s ability to move increases, so should the space they can explore. For example a three or four month old cannot move far at all, so their play space may be a small play mat with toys which they can pick up and mouth, have tummy time on and perhaps have hanging objects over head for swiping and watching.
As a baby begins to move, their capacity to explore grows. Therefore, so should the safe environment they have available to them. A heavy based wheeled pushing toy or trolley is a great thing to have available them at this stage so that they can pull to stand, but which doesn’t take off across the floor with them in tow!
In general sturdy or heavier toys and playthings are best for encouraging gross motor development and exploration. At any age or stage, heavier or sturdier objects give more feedback to the muscles and joints.
For fine motor development it is important to give children lots of opportunities for messy tactile play. The sense of touch is directly linked to fine motor development. So although the mess can often be off putting, allowing a child this opportunity with food and play stuff is vital to fine motor skill.
If a parent is concerned about their child’s motor development it is best to seek out a paediatric Occupational Therapist opinion through the HSE or local clinic / practice.
Katie Cremin – Associate Professor in Occupational Therapy, Trinity College Dublin. Board member at Sensational Kids Charity, Kildare.
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