How can you know when, how, and how much to support infant development? Learning more about the prerequisite steps to various milestones can help.
INFANTS

The first physical reflexes are not voluntary; they are "wired in" to help babies nurse better and protect them against sensory overstimulation.

Understanding the Basics: Physical Reflexes

During the first few weeks, babies can blink their eyes against light that seems too bright and cough or sneeze if something irritating gets in their respiratory system. During the early months, babies exhibit a tonic neck reflex (TNR): If an infant is placed on his back, with his head turned to one side, the arm on that side will be flexed and the leg will be extended in a "fencing" position. This reflex helps babies curve into the body of the person feeding them. The rooting and sucking reflexes help too. When a baby's cheek is lightly brushed, she will turn to that side, helping her better to search for the nipple and to suck. At the same time, her grasp reflex is so strong that if she is supine and curls each of her hands around a finger on each of yours, you can lift her up briefly to a sitting position!

Handing It Over!

Picking up a small item from a table is difficult for about the first six months. An infant may first make "corralling" motions with her hands, and then try "raking" the toy or bit of food toward herself. Between 8 and 11 months, babies gain more and more control over thumb and forefinger, using scissorlike motions, they still require the help of the other fingers to pick things up. At 11 or 12 months, it's time for pincer prehension -- using thumb and forefinger alone to pick up tiny objects, such as a Cheerio, a bit of ground hamburger, even a piece of wiggly spaghetti (a big challenge!).

Because babies need practice at perfecting these skills, be sure to give them easy-to-handle, safe bits of food to try: slices of banana; grated, peeled apple; a well-cooked carrot; a teething biscuit. All are grist for baby's growing attempt to master fine-motor control. Around the age of 10 months, index fingers are able to poke and pry. Now babies can point to what they want you to notice or to bring them - and they will!

For most babies, eye muscles work together very early on. If you, her special caregiver, call a baby's name from the door of the nursery, she will make an effort to turn her eyes and head to find out where your voice is coming from.

Do the Locomotion With Me!

You can encourage development by placing infants safely on floors as much as possible. By three months, these very young children practice pushing up from their chests. And by seven to nine months, they can often get up on all fours, tummy off the floor, and rock back and forth. Some can scoot on their tummies by 9 to 10 months, although they may move backward. Some learn to crawl fairly rapidly with their tummies off the ground, and soon afterward, they pull up to a standing position.

And you know what happens now. They cruise, holding on to sturdy chairs and any other furniture within reach! This is an important time to remind yourself that when a baby grabs that small chair to steady herself as she pushes the chair around the room, she is practicing a milestone: An infant is about to achieve vertical self-locomotion!

An important note: As the child-care provider, you may witness baby's steps first. Wait for parents to triumphantly share the news that their baby is now walking! Also remember that walking alone is a milestone with a very wide window of normalcy. Some babies walk before 8 months, while others don't until they are 15 to 17 months. If a parent expresses concern, be reassuring and refer to this range.

TODDLERS

Caregivers, rejoice! Life is about to get a lot less messy.

I Can Do It Myself!

Between 12 and 18 months, children gain wrist control. You can foster their development by encouraging children to toss beanbags and practice throwing soft balls using wrist and shoulder movements. Large balls of yarn make great safe and soft equipment.

About this same time, toddlers learn to make rotary chewing motions. The seal that closes their lips to keep food from dribbling out of the corners is now firm, and their tongues no longer thrust outward but, instead, maneuver food toward the back of their mouths to aid swallowing. It's time for self-feeding - with lots of fling and dash, and sometimes a few "experiments" to boot. Have lots of clean sponges ready for spills as you generously supply finger foods and help toddlers increase their dexterity with utensils.

Get Ready, 'Cause Here They Come!

From 18 to 36 months, toddlers begin to walk more and more steadily. No longer do they need to keep their feet wide apart and extend their arms to balance. This is a time when toddlers learn to stride, climb, and turn corners without falling! As you watch and enjoy this new toddler movement, remember that most youngsters need to be taught over and over to go downstairs by turning backward "tush first!" and upstairs holding on to your hand and bringing one foot up to meet the other - step by step.

If you feel a toddler is reluctant to walk, consider whether he is being overfed and therefore having trouble with his weight. Good nutrition may help him master more muscular skills. Also remember that some toddlers are just more physically graceful than others - even moving their bodies to music with more rhythmic ease. Try playing soft, dreamy dance music to entice toddlers to enjoy making body motions, and add to the fun by offering large colorful scarves or squares of material to dance with.

To help children practice walking, give them sturdy push toys. Moving the toy forward and backward is great exercise, and toddlers enjoy the racket they make as they walk. Provide lots of low wagons with sturdy handles for pushing, and help toddlers balance together on seesaws and when using the slide.

As toddlers master motor milestones, remember that they may use newfound skills to climb to dangerous heights. Be sure to delight at their increased control over torso and movement. But also keep your environment safe by making sure that climbing activities take place on appropriate equipment where you can supervise closely and cheerfully.