Infants and toddlers are people on the move! They use their bodies as tools for discovery. We see them wiggling, reaching, creeping, crawling, scooting, cruising, walking, dancing, and even running. These are some of the ways infants and toddlers demonstrate their “gross motor” or large movement skills.
We also see them wiggle their fingers and toes, grasp objects with their hands, and pick up tiny objects with their fingertips. These are considered small body movements, often called “fine motor” skills, which also include oral motor skills. We see infants develop muscle control in their mouths as the sounds they make change rapidly from cries, to coos, to babbles, and eventually to words.
One reason many families connect with the early intervention program is that they have concerns about their child’s motor development. Families may worry that their child is not reaching milestones or moving in a typical manner. It is important to remember that each child follows an individual timeline in meeting specific motor milestones. Because of these individual differences, caregivers may find it helpful to know three key ideas that explain the progression of motor development of infants and toddlers.
Motor development starts at the head and moves down to the toes.
Newborn infants do not have control of their heads. They first develop control of their head and neck muscles and develop the ability to hold their heads up and look around. Next infants develop control of their core muscles and arms (trunk) as they learn to roll and sit up. When these core muscles are strong, they develop more control of their legs as they learn to pull to a stand, walk with support, and eventually walk unassisted.
Motor development starts from the center of the body and moves outward.
Initially, infants move their limbs in an uncontrolled way, often because of their primitive reflexes. To progress in development, these innate reflexes must disappear first. As they mature, they begin to move their limbs intentionally. First, they make larger movements with their arms and legs, and as they mature, they will start to develop the small muscles of their hands, feet, and mouths.
Motor development is first general and then becomes specific.
This means infants will first use their large muscles more generally, and as they grow they will develop more precise motor abilities. For example, as infants begin to get control of their limbs, they make swiping movements at toys and objects. Over time, they develop the ability to grasp objects in their palm and then eventually to use the tiny muscles of their fingers to pick up small objects such as small pieces of fruit or cereal.
These big ideas about motor development can help you understand the progression of motor skills you see your child display. Think creatively and consider your everyday routines. You can support your child’s motor development by providing opportunities for her to move and discover the world.
If you have more questions, talk to your service coordinator or early intervention provider.
Originally written for the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse Newsletter: Winter 2017