Infants & Toddlers: Building Babies'Motor Skills

By carefully observing babies and appreciating individual differences in development, you can help young children make motor-skill advances

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K


MOTOR DEVELOPMENT IN CHILDREN is miraculous during the first few years. Newborn babies are only able to wiggle. Their fists are tightly curled and cannot grasp a toy. Even when, by about 3 to 4 months, babies' hands uncurl so they can bat at a toy that is swinging above them, they still cannot control the muscles of their fingers in order to pick up a tiny item. This fine-motor control occurs sometime around 11 or 12 months. By about 1 ½ years, further fine-motor development brings advances in wrist control, so that a toddler is able to lift a cup and not spill every time he takes a drink.

The eye muscles of tiny babies can focus in a coordinated fashion, but they can only see about a foot or two away. In early infancy, the mouth muscles are functioning superbly for suckling, but are unable to chew.

Building Skills From Head to Toe

Because muscular coordination develops from the head area to the toes, the leg and foot muscles will be among the last of the motor systems to become operational. Thus, some babies, well into the second year of life, are still toddling with the feet-wide-apart gait of a little sailor just getting off a boat. When a teacher is aware of this sequence of development, she will not be so worried when a toddler is still spilling liquids at 15 months. Rather, the wise teacher will be providing a sippy cup and lots of opportunities for practicing wrist dexterity, such as pouring liquids from one small container to another at the water table. The observant teacher will also notice if a baby who is almost 6 months old is having trouble focusing with both eyes aligned. She will be aware that this lack of ocular motor control needs medical attention.

Varying Timetables

It's also important to be aware that infants and toddlers differ widely in the timing of some of these developments. For example, there is great variation in the age of mastery for certain sets of muscles, such as the control of sphincter muscles necessary for toilet learning. Children range from about 1 ½ to 4 years in learning to control these muscles. As another example, some toddlers can throw a ball fairly well-coordinating their shoulder, arm, and eye muscles-much earlier than other children in your group can.

Turn the page to find activities that can help you build the motor and communication skills so important for helping children develop into competent and graceful people. 

Click here to view and download A Letter to Families (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Child and Infant Care, Motor Skills, Physical Development

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