How to Promote Fine Motor Skills in Your Baby and Toddler

Fine motor skills develop most rapidly in babies and toddlers, through the chillest way possible – play.

by Matthew Utley

Fine motor skills are subtle movements of the hands and fingers in coordinating with the eyes. They help achieve tasks like pinching and pointing. And anyone who’s ever spent time with a newborn understands that those fine motor skills aren’t part of their movement repertoire. Newborns can mostly grasp. It’s a reflex that starts to fade just in time for babies to discover their own hands. Fine motor skills are not reflexive. They need time to develop,

“Babies tend to discover their hands around two months of age and you will notice they often play with them by opening and closing fists and bringing them together,” says Tiffany Fischman, MD, a pediatrician at Calabasas Pediatrics. “Fine motor skills really begin in the brain with the ability to sense things through sight and hearing. A baby will not be able to reach and grab for something specifically until they are able to see it.”

Understanding Fine Motor Skills

  • Fine motor skills are on purpose: they are subtle movements of the hands and fingers, coordinating with the eyes, to achieve a task.
  • Babies don’t have fine motor skills: though newborns can grasp things reflexively, they don’t have the perception to recognize what they are doing or interacting with.
  • Busy brains: as babies learn to crawl, to walk, to understand language, and bond with their family, they are also learning how to manipulate small objects.
  • Daily tasks are important: learning to feed themselves, to bath themselves or to dress themselves are all important developmental opportunities for babies and toddlers.
  • Training never stops: whether learning to play a sport, to play an instrument, or to draw or paint, fine motor skills can be trained throughout adulthood.

Around three months old, an infant’s vision, hearing, and memory have developed to where they can recognize items and reach for them with deliberation. That’s when fine motor skills start to develop rapidly.

How to Promote Fine Motor Skills at Six Months

For the first few months, play mats with dangling texture toys are great tools for promoting fine motor skills. By three months, most babies will be able to recognize and reach for the toys. By four months of age, most babies will be able to grasp a toy. By six months, they are generally coordinated enough to bring an object to their mouth – and parents need to watch out for choking hazards. By six months many babies will be able to roll over or wriggle out of the play mat. As long as play is supervised and the house baby proofed, this will give babies more opportunity for exploration.

How to Promote Fine Motor Skills at 12 Months

The ability to move items to the mouth grows more refined, and while the choking hazard doesn’t diminish, babies general become better at feeding themselves.

“Between 8-12 months your baby begins to develop a pincer grasp-which allows them to pick up much smaller objects between their thumbs and forefingers,” explains Fischman. “This is generally when babies are introduced to very small pieces of food and encouraged to self-feed.”

Babies also learn how to use a spoon and drink from a cup, if not particularly well. But those mealtime messes provide some tactile amusement and are the results of trial and error of learning any skill. In this case, it also happens to be fun as hell.

“They also enjoy throwing/dropping things around this age but have little control over where things end up,” Fischman admits. “You will notice this is quite entertaining for them, and quite annoying for you, the parent. This is totally normal and they really aren’t trying to make a mess – they are just exploring something they find fascinating.”

How to Promote Fine Motor Skills at Two Years

By 18 months a child is throwing with much more purpose – and they are mobile enough to do most of the retrieving themselves. Their fine motor play is much more varied, too – they are drawing, building with blocks, opening drawers and containers, and opening books. These are more complex actions – and the concentration they require is a huge part of their development.

“I see a huge range in what kids can do with fine motor skills because they require practice and concentration,” says Fischman. “It’s great to promote fine motor skills through sensory play with things like play dough, sand, and finger paint. Pretend tools, Legos, and instruments like drums, guitars and pianos are fun exploration toys for kids this age.”

By age two, kids are starting to show a hand preference when drawing or eating.

How to Promote Fine Motor Skills at Three Years and Older

Three-year-olds can accomplish fairly involved tasks, both in play and their regular daily life skills. They are learning to wash hands, brush teeth, and may even be fairly independent bathers. Dressing is a great opportunity for fine motor skills practice – buttons, zippers, and snaps all require nuanced motions. Even learning to wipe requires fine motor skills, and provides a natural way to practice them. And they all need to be in learned before kindergarten.

“By the time a child starts kindergarten, between 5 and 6, they can usually print their name, cut and paste, draw a person with multiple parts and tie a knot,” explains Fischman. “Of course all of these skills require practice, so if a child has not been taught to tie, they will not magically be able to do it.”

After all, these aren’t reflexes, like the grasp – these complex, compound movements aren’t just going to appear when they reach a certain age. They have to be taught. Whether that is with bunny ears and rabbit holes or some radically new, unconventional method, parents need to approach the process with patience and kindness.