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01 May

0031During your baby’s first year, he discovered his hands and learned he could use them. He started crawling and you were probably two steps ahead of him, making sure the dog food was out of reach and closing the bathroom door to keep him from unraveling the toilet paper.

Now that he is a year old, his play will become more focused as his hand-related fine motor skills blossom and he can better manipulate objects. This play helps secure the foundation for life skills in his not-so-distant future, like using utensils, getting dressed, and writing his first letters.

Below we’ll take a look at this development from months 12-24 through the lens of three favorite activities: Play, drawing, and looking at books.

Months 12-14:

Your baby builds his first towers. They’re only 2 blocks high, but it’s no small feat. It reflects his improving hand-eye coordination and ability to pick up objects and release them gently and precisely. If you give him a circular container with a lid that’s not too tight, he can pull the lid off. This shows he is perfecting his grasping skills and learning how much force is required for different tasks. He won’t be able to put the lid back on yet, so get ready for his new favorite game: Taking the lid off and asking you to put it back on, endlessly!

Your baby can hold a crayon and use it to make a few marks on a piece of paper. This artwork may not be framable, but it demonstrates hand-eye coordination and learning how hard he has to press the crayon on the paper to create a mark.

If you give your baby a book with thin pages, he turns 4-5 pages at a time. Even though he’s missing half the story, he’s practicing the difficult tasks of grasping and manipulating a page—one of the thinnest objects in everyday life.

Months 15-17:

Increased hand-eye coordination, precision and strength mean your baby can finally put those lids back on the circular containers and play the pull-off, put-on game all by himself! Your new role is cheering when he successfully inserts a circle into a shape puzzle and looks at you proudly (the other shapes come later).

Your baby begins to scribble and use his entire arm to draw lines on a large pad of paper. Keep an eye on your little Picasso—the wall is a tempting surface for this type of art! A bonus move at this stage is that he can rip a piece of paper in half after he scribbles on it.

Months 18-20:

After months of perfecting the 2-block tower, your baby can now stack 3-4 blocks. This is a big step, considering the care and accuracy involved in building higher and higher towers. He can also string beads with medium sized holes onto a firm cable, and remove and replace lids on different shaped containers. Something he will love to do at this stage is unwrap small packages, which shows different fine motor skills working together as he grasps, pulls and rips.

Your baby will try to imitate vertical lines, although they will be shaky.

Your baby can now grasp 2-3 thin pages.

Months 21-24:

During this stage your baby graduates to towers of up to 6 blocks, and he can complete a basic shape puzzle (circle, triangle, square). A game he loves is rolling a ball back and forth with you. This game not only displays his fine motor skills, it also shows how he is learning to use his body and hands together. Oh, and he can turn round doorknobs now, so closing the bathroom door won’t keep him away from the toilet paper anymore.

Your budding artist now tries to imitate horizontal circular, and semi-circular lines—the building blocks of writing letters. Although the “dog” he draws still looks more like a blob, his scribbles become more defined. Towards the end of this stage he may be able to fold one of his drawings in half if you show him how to do it.

At last, your baby can grasp one thin page at a time, finally getting the full story!

There are many changes during these months of your baby’s life that fill you with wonder. We hope that shining a light on this fine motor development helps you appreciate the truly incredible (and important!) things he is doing with his hands.

28 Apr

0030Symbolic play (or pretend play) is a highlight of childhood. Remember when toy food and plates set the stage for an elaborate lunch served to stuffed animals? Or when picnic tables at the park were pirate ships, and long sticks from the ground were swords?

Symbolic play is the ability to use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas during play. Before symbolic play, a block is a block. After, a block can be a car, a phone, or anything your little one imagines it to be.

Engaging in this play is one of the most important tasks of childhood. It lays the foundation for several other areas of development, which we’ll explore below.

When Does Symbolic Play Develop?

Symbolic play develops between 18-20 months. Here we’ll look at stages of play from birth to 24 months:

Before 18 months: Play is based on exploration and imitation. Towards the end of this stage your child may imitate actions she has observed, like bringing a toy cup to her mouth, but for the most part objects are still used for their intended purposes.

18-24 months: Towards the beginning of this stage, a cognitive shift occurs as your child begins to understand that one thing can represent another thing. A stone in the yard becomes a car that she pushes on the ground.

She starts to play with stuffed animals or dolls as if they are real. She puts a stuffed giraffe to bed on the couch, or feeds a doll with a spoon from her toy kitchen.

Around 24 months: Symbolic play enters a new phase as your child begins to act out sequences. Before putting her stuffed giraffe to bed, she feeds him dinner and washes his face. These sequences become more sophisticated as she moves towards age 3.

Symbolic play continues to evolve and become increasingly complex throughout childhood.

Why is Symbolic Play Important?

Symbolic play is integral to your child’s development in several ways, including:

  • Helping her develop language, which includes speech, vocabulary, and expressing and understanding thoughts, feelings, ideas and concepts.
  • Building executive function, which encompasses planning, organizing, and completing tasks.
  • Laying the groundwork for later acquisition of reading, writing, and math skills. Letters, numbers, words and equations are all symbols. This play is her first experience using symbols to represent things and solve problems.
  • Nurturing her social-emotional skills. A tea party where dolls converse and share food supports her understanding of social interaction. A stuffed animal being mean to another stuffed animal may represent something she has observed and is trying to make sense of. Comforting a crying doll reinforces empathy.
  • Encouraging creativity. This play offers her endless opportunities to be creative as she uses objects to represent other things and acts out increasingly complex scenarios.

How Can You Encourage Symbolic Play?

  • Play! Being an actor in your child’s imaginary world is one of the best ways to encourage and motivate her to engage in this important play.
  • Be mindful of the toys you offer her. Toys like play kitchens, doctor kits, and costumes, as well as toys without batteries that can be used in multiple ways (blocks, balls, dolls, cars) are all great for encouraging imagination and creativity.
  • Give your child plenty of time to play unrestricted by equipment like seats, swings, and activity centers. Screen time can also interfere with symbolic play. Our article on screen time has great information about how to manage this part of modern life.

One of the best things about symbolic play is the opportunity to connect with your child. Even after a long day when mustering up the energy to play is hard, pretending to thoroughly enjoy the soup she makes you by putting a plastic orange and felt broccoli into a toy bowl will delight her. And, it will probably be the best thing you tasted all day.

27 Apr

0029aYour baby is on the move! Welcome to the days of following him from room to room as he explores his world. This can be exhausting for you, but it’s one of the most complex and valuable stages of his development.

In another article, we talk about 5 important benefits of this gross motor milestone. Here, we’ll take a closer look at crawling and how it relates to sensory-motor integration, fine motor skills, feeding, and speech.

When do Babies Crawl?

Babies generally start crawling between 8-10 months. In the weeks leading up to it, you may notice your baby making “pre-crawling” moves, like getting on his hands and knees and rocking back and forth, side to side, and diagonally. He may also use his arms and legs to scoot forward on his tummy. His first attempts at crawling may be awkward, but soon he’ll get the hang of it and be off!

Remember that babies meet milestones at different times. Your pediatrician can offer guidance if you’re worried about your baby’s development.

Crawling and Sensory-Motor Integration

Crawling shows how a child’s sensory and motor systems work together. In order to crawl, a baby needs a sense of his body in space (vestibular sense), a sense of his body parts and how they work (proprioceptive sense), and muscle strength to propel movement—all of which have been developing during months of tummy time, rolling and sitting up.

Crawling takes this learning to a truly dynamic level. Your baby is now able to move 360 degrees. This, along with transitional movements (lying to sitting to crawling and back again), allows him to practice rotating and bending his body parts. He is also gaining new understanding about gravity as he experiments with how hard to push against the ground to achieve the movement he wants.

A fascinating aspect of crawling and sensory-motor development is “motor planning”, or the process in which we learn how to do something automatically. Anything we do without thinking about it (getting dressed, riding a bike) is the result of motor planning. It requires that the sensory and motor systems work together to create a “body map” of different movements. Research shows that when a baby learns to crawl, there is an uptick of activity in parts of the brain that are related to motor planning.

Crawling and Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills, or using the wrists, hands and fingers, require body stability and postural control. Pediatric Occupational Therapist Natasha Bravo, M.S., OTR/L explains that crawling helps create a stable body and good posture because your baby is loading his wrists, shoulders and back. She adds that crawling is the only gross-motor activity that does this, which is why it’s so important to give him the freedom to crawl as much as possible!

Another fascinating thing about crawling is that it supports changes in your baby’s hands, including lengthening the long finger muscles, developing hand arches, and separating the hand into a skill side (thumb and first two fingers) and a stabilizing side (ring finger and pinky). These changes prepare him to use his hands and fingers for endless fine-motor tasks like manipulating toys, writing, and tying shoes.

Crawling and Oral Motor Development

When your baby crawls, the left-right movements are also happening inside his mouth. Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist Chris Rowlee, M.S., CCC-SLP explains that because he can now move his jaw, tongue and lips left to right, he is ready to graduate from purees to soft foods he can bite and chew.

Similarly, these oral motor changes allow him to make more complicated speech sounds. When he babbles, he will now make different combinations of sounds (da-gee-da).

As you can see, the crawling stage is an especially rich time of learning for your baby. Allowing him to crawl as much as possible will help him reap the benefits of this milestone before he starts walking. Our BabySparks app offers more than 20 activities designed to encourage crawling.

31 Mar

0027aStop and think about the complex wrist, hand and finger movements involved in things like zipping a sweatshirt, tying shoes, or using a can opener. Amazing, right? Long before these fine motor tasks became automatic, our hands went through developmental stages. Below we take a look at hand development from birth through your baby’s first year.

This timeline is based on averages. If you’re worried about your baby’s hand development, check in with your pediatrician for guidance.

Birth to 1 Month: “Little Fighter” Fists

At this stage, your new baby clenches her fists most of the time. This is due to the palmer grasp reflex. This reflex is also why, if you place your finger on her palm, she grasps and squeezes it. Around 6 weeks she begins to notice her hands. She studies them and touches one with the other, but she still has no idea they’re part of her body.

2-3 Months: Hello, Hands!

The palmer grasp reflex disappears and your baby starts to keep her hands open. She swats at nearby dangling toys, and if you put a toy like a rattle in her hand she grasps and shakes it briefly. When she hears the noise, she looks to see where it came from. This type of play teaches her that her hands are part of her body, and that she can use them to achieve a goal. It also begins to develop hand-eye coordination. At this stage she touches her face with her hands, exploring her features. Bringing her hands to her mouth helps her develop a sense of midline (understanding that her body has two sides, and where the middle is).

4 Months: Touching Everything

Now that your baby is well-acquainted with her hands, she tries to touch and grab everything! She swats at things with increased precision. Although she still can’t pick anything up, she clumsily tries to gather up a toy with both hands. She holds and drops objects that you place in her hand, and develops an initial understanding of cause and effect as she plays.

5 Months: Finally, I Can Pick it Up!

Although she still can’t use her fingers, your baby now begins to pick up toys by grasping them in her palm. She transfers toys from one hand to the other.

6-7 Months: Banging and Clapping

Your baby practices using her fingers by raking toys across the floor and picking them up. She now uses her palm, thumb, index and middle fingers to grasp. The real fun starts as she holds an object in each hand and bangs them together. She manipulates objects, and explores them from different angles. She wants to put everything in her mouth, which is a normal way for babies to learn about the world. The most endearing fine-motor skill at this stage? Clapping!

8 Months: Look Mom, I Can (Sort Of) Feed Myself!

Your baby develops a new, more precise way to pick things up: Using her thumb, index finger and middle finger. You can try allowing her to feed herself, which she will do clumsily (and messily!). This is one of the best ways for her to practice her fine-motor skills. She may also be able to hold a cup, although actually bringing it to her mouth to drink comes later.

9-10 Months: The Great Pincer Grasp

One of the most important fine-motor skills—the pincer grasp—emerges as your baby begins to pick up small objects with her thumb and index finger. Again, mealtimes are a great time to practice this. Foods like cooked peas work well. She will have a blast picking them up and squishing them, and may even eat a few! At this stage she also uses her hands for more complicated play like opening drawers and putting things into and taking them out of containers.

11-12 Months: Increased Precision

Play becomes increasingly more precise and complex as your baby uses her hands for activities like making a 2-block tower. A more mastered pincer grasp allows her to play with thin objects, like strings. She can also hold a crayon and drink from a cup on her own.

It isn’t always obvious that these first-year stages of hand development are fine motor skills. It’s later, when toddlers learn to dress themselves or eat with a spoon that hand development takes the stage. But that same pincer grasp she uses to pick up and squish peas leads to holding a pencil, writing, zipping a sweatshirt, and endless other tasks! Her early, clumsy attempts to use her hands and fingers are the foundation for fine motor skills she will use throughout her life.

30 Mar

0026aNow that your baby has gained head control and learned to roll over, she is ready to pull herself up to sit! This exciting milestone offers her a new way to move and a new view of her surroundings.

Like other gross-motor milestones before it, sitting up continues to prepare your baby for future movement (next up: crawling!). It nurtures her sensory-motor development and broadens her language acquisition, both of which we’ll talk about below.

When Do Babies Sit Up?

Around 6 months, you will be able to place your baby in a seated position and she will use her arms to support herself and stay there for limited periods of time. Around 7 months, she will have good balance while seated without using her arms as support, and may bend forward or backward to reach for things. Around 8 months, she will begin to pull herself up to sitting on her own.

Some babies reach these stages of sitting sooner, some later. If you’re worried about your baby’s development, your pediatrician can help determine if she’s on track.

Sitting and Other Gross-Motor Milestones

Pediatric Physical Therapist Dr. Andrea Hayward, MSPT, DPT explains that pulling up to sit on her own is an extraordinary feat for your baby. It requires a lot of pelvic, truck and arm strength to sit up, and a lot of balance and coordination to be able to twist, bend, lean, and play using both hands. All of this prepares her for her biggest gross-motor challenge yet: Crawling!

Sitting and Sensory-Motor Integration

Sitting is a big milestone for your baby’s “internal” senses—vestibular and proprioceptive, both of which are crucial for balanced, coordinated movement. The vestibular sense is an understanding of our bodies in space. It allows us to know how our body is positioned in relation to the ground and to objects around us. The proprioceptive sense is an understanding of the relative position of our body parts.

Pediatric Occupational Therapist Natasha Bravo, M.S., OTR/L explains that sitting refines these senses in important ways: It teaches your baby to understand that her body is vertical rather than horizontal, and that her head is further from the ground than when she is lying down. She learns how to use her body to transition from one position to another, shift weight from side to side, and catch herself from falling if she starts to topple over.

Language Development

Throughout our articles on gross-motor milestones we highlight how each offers new opportunities for your baby to have meaningful interactions with you during play. These interactions, according to Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist Mandy Alvarez, M.S., CCC-SLP, are what drive her language development.

Sitting up brings a new, dynamic element to play. When your baby can pull to sit on her own and both of her hands are free, she can manipulate objects in a new way. She may hold an object in each hand and bang them together, or use her fingers to move objects across the floor. This creates new opportunities for you to label things and actions, narrate what’s happening, and engage in back-and-forth “conversation” with her. All of this teaches her about expressing herself, listening, cause and effect, and understanding non-verbal language.

Our BabySparks app has plenty of activities you can do with your baby to support her as she learns to get into and out of a seated position. Soon she will be on the move crawling, and you will be on the move keeping up with her!