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Motor Skill Development: The First 5 Years

It's thrilling to watch your baby grow, but it can be hard to know what to expect during the first year, especially with your first child. This guide is intended to help you anticipate your child's next milestone in motor skill development, including the muscle developments that lead to head control, sitting and standing, crawling, walking and hand-eye coordination. Remember that mini growth spurts are very common because children grow and develop at different rates, but on average babies grow 10 inches in height and three times their birth weight during their first year.

Help your baby grow and develop during that first year by providing plenty of safe space for rolling, scooting and crawling. Dress your baby in comfortable clothing and encourage movement and crawling by playing games that require gentle leg and arm movement and by placing a favorite toy just out of reach. Access to a stable, low table or other stationary object can also help your baby learn to pull up to a standing position.

Overall health is important, too; ensure that your child gets plenty of rest and a balanced diet. While your baby's progress should be generally consistent with the following timeline, and you can help your child progress to an extent, remember too that every baby develops at an individual pace.

Developmental milestones

  • Birth to 3 months. Babies at this age will be able to clumsily move their body, raise their head when lying on their stomach and track toys close to their face. They will also begin opening their hands from the newborn grip so they can reach for and grasp objects.
  • 3 to 6 months. Babies in this age group can now lift their head and upper body while lying on their stomach and resting on their forearms. Babies may also be able to sit up with help, turn their bodies to see things of interest, and roll over one or both ways. While playtime spent lying on their stomach is important to babies at this age, remember that they should still be put to bed on their back. As your baby's eyes continue to develop, vision is now becoming three dimensional, making it easier to reach for, grasp, and pass toys between hands to from hand to mouth. Babies at this age may also begin sucking on their fingers or other objects near their mouth.
  • 6 to 9 months. During this time frame, your baby will likely begin to crawl and sit without support. Babies will continue to reach for things, including small objects like finger foods. Your baby's eyes can now focus on objects near and far away, making it easier to keep an eye on you. Your baby may also be learning to eat with a spoon and be able to pull up to a standing position using a coffee table or some other form of leverage.
  • 9 to 12 months. By now your baby can crawl with ease, possibly cruise around the room by holding onto furniture, and even take the first of many unassisted steps. Babies can also now use the pincer grasp (thumb and forefinger) to pick up or put down small objects or release them in your hand. One of your baby's favorite pastimes may be banging on pots and pans.
  • 12 to 18 months. By age one, children begin to grow slower but are still developing quickly. Babies reaching this stage will most likely be able to stand up and sit down on their own and will continually walk more easily and with greater stability. Your baby may also be able to creep up stairs on hands and knees, help you at story time by turning the pages of the book, or drink unassisted by holding a cup with both hands. By 18 months, let your baby play with pull toys to encourage walking forward and backward. Your child may also now be able to throw a ball without losing balance.
  • 18 to 24 months. At this age, busy toddlers aren't showing any signs of slowing down, and their improving balance and coordination are helping them to run and walk backward with ease and increase their independence. They can now dance, catch and kick balls, bend over to pick up objects, walk while holding a toy, close doors and build with blocks. Help your toddler move up and down stairs and in no time, your little one will be climbing them independently. You may notice that your baby likes to pull, push and pound on things and that finger painting and scribbling are favorite activities. Children in this age group may even impress you by feeding themselves with a spoon and fork and putting on their own clothes-mostly those easily fastened with snaps or large buttons.
  • 2 to 3 years. Your child is now fine-tuning large motor skills. At this age, children can switch feet while climbing stairs, ride a tricycle, jump and balance on one foot, and throw a ball overhand. Give your child a chance to improve strength and coordination through play. Encourage new activities, but try not to pressure your child or become too overprotective. Give your child time to practice new skills and offer encouragement in moments of frustration.
  • 3 to 4 years. Talk to your child's pediatrician if he or she can't jump up and down or over a small object by age four. Children at this age can now run and skip well, play simple ball games and may even be skilled tricycle riders.
  • 4 to 5 years. At this age, children can now hop, skip, run, play with a ball and climb. Their balance will continue to improve as they grow, but alert your pediatrician if your child can't hop on one foot or balance on one foot for five seconds by age six. Your child may be one in four children between 3 years and five years old (and later between 8 and 12 years old) to experience growing pains. The most likely causes of growing pains are jumping, climbing and other activities that take place during a child's busy day. The pain is usually felt in muscles rather than joints and it varies from mild to strong. Most children who have growing pains do not feel them every day, but when they occur, massaging, stretching and applying a warm compress can all help. Tell your child that growing pains will pass as they grow up and check with your doctor if your child complains of a lot of pain.

If you ever have concerns about your child's development, make sure to talk them over with your pediatrician. Make note if your baby seems clumsier than other children the same age, has no head control by 7 months old, doesn't move his or her arms or legs much, can't sit alone by age one, can't stand by 15 months, or can't walk independently by 18 months. Your child's doctor can help you decide if a free evaluation through your local early intervention program is necessary. For more information or the location of an early intervention program in your area, visit the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

You can learn more about the milestones in your baby's life by visiting the "Ages and Stages" section of the website for the American Academy of Pediatrics.


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