The Newborn's Physical Development: Gross Motor Skills

While your baby is busy growing taller, gaining weight, and cutting teeth, she is also learning how to interact physically with her environment. Of course, your baby's physical development did not begin only at birth -- you were probably well aware of your infant's intrauterine acrobatics. On this page and the next, we'll look at your newborn's physical development. Let's begin with your newborn's gross motor skills.

Development of Physical Skills

During the first three months of your baby's life, reflexes govern much of her behavior. As these newborn reflexes fade, more purposeful movements replace them. As she gains strength and coordination in her muscles, your baby explores and manipulates objects in her environment. Each day, she moves more competently.

Physical development is divided into two categories: fine motor and gross motor. Fine motor skills require precise coordination of the small muscles. Acquisition of hand-eye coordination is the focus of fine motor development. Gross motor skills are governed by larger, stronger, less exacting muscles. These skills include holding up the head, sitting, crawling, and walking.

Acquisition of developmental skills typically occurs in an orderly, predictable sequence. The precise timing of the mastery of any one skill, though, is subject to much normal variation -- something to keep in mind when you are tempted to label your baby as early or late in development.

Each baby approaches the world with her own unique style. Resist comparing your child with other children. As long as an ability appears within the normal range, differences within the normal range are insignificant. So, when you hear that another child is walking at nine months, don't despair because your child is still perfecting her crawl. Instead, focus on her special talents. For instance, your baby may be much better than another at picking up and examining small objects. No matter when it occurs, celebrate your child's every accomplishment with her.

Physical development follows three general patterns:

1. Muscular development progresses from head to toe. In other words, your baby learns to lift and hold up her head before her torso is strong enough to maintain a sitting posture.
2. The strength and coordination of the limbs begins close to the body and moves outward. Your baby coordinates her arm movements at the shoulder, then the elbows, then the wrists. Skillful manipulation of the fingers, or fine motor skills, comes last.
3. Motor responses are general at first. Later, they become more specific. For example, if you hold a red ball in front of your baby when she is three months old, she may smile, wave her arms and legs, and finally make an attempt to swipe at the ball with one or both arms. A few months later, she may still smile at the ball, but she will quickly, smoothly, and deliberately grasp it with one hand.

Gross Motor Development: Controlling the Big Muscles

Head control.

The first motor hurdle your infant must clear is to gain control over his relatively large head. If you imagine trying to lift your head while balancing a huge, unabridged dictionary on top of it, you have some idea of the challenge facing your baby. He spends the first three to four months learning to control his head movements.

Gradually, his neck muscles strengthen and his head becomes less wobbly. In the meantime, you need to support his head when you pick him up. By three months, he is able to control his head when gently pulled up to sit, though his head still bobs a little if you hold him in a sitting position. By four to six months of age, his head doesn't fall backward as you sit him up; and once sitting, he can hold his head steady.

Despite the head's relatively large size, your healthy newborn can raise his head long enough to move it from side to side when lying on his stomach. Hence, he can avoid suffocation. Over the next three months, he develops enough strength to lift his head 90 degrees away from a flat surface. Between two and four months of age, if his arms are extended in front of his chest, he can raise his head and chest above a surface.

Sitting.

As your baby gains strength progressively down his torso to his hips, he becomes able to sit. Around four months of age, he is able to sit with support for 10 to 15 minutes. At this point, he enjoys sitting with his back supported by an infant seat, pillows, or friendly hands. Stroller rides become much more fun because he can sit up and observe the world. He might even enjoy brief outings in a baby backpack. During meals, he can sit in a high chair with a pillow or blanket supporting the lower part of his back.

When he is between 5 and 7 1/2 months old, if you set him down with his legs spread apart, he is able to sit alone. You may still want to place pillows or blanket rolls around him to pad his fall should he topple over. For a while, he still needs to lean forward on his hands to maintain his sitting posture. But soon he balances himself, freeing his hands to finger interesting objects. By nine months, he can push himself into a sitting position. His increasing independence gives him hours of delight as he sits and plays with his toys.

Rolling over. Rolling represents your baby's first whole-body maneuver and his first means of locomotion. As the tonic neck reflex fades, his arm no longer automatically extends as he turns his head. When he has enough control over his head, torso, and legs, he can tuck his arm under himself and roll. His weighty head initiates the rotation.

At about three months of age, babies start to turn by rolling to their sides. Between four and six months, your baby first rolls from his stomach to his back. A month or so later, he masters rolling in both directions. Never leave a baby of any age unattended on a raised surface, as even young infants can accidentally flip themselves over.

Crawling. During the same time your baby learns to sit, he may also start to crawl. The onset of crawling is extremely variable. Some babies prefer to scoot along on their buttocks from a sitting position. A few babies seem to decide they would rather omit crawling and proceed directly to walking.

If a baby will learn to crawl, first attempts can begin as early as five months of age. If yours is a very active baby, he may then travel by half rolling and half pushing himself in the desired direction. He may start to crawl at seven months of age.

The average baby begins by creeping in the sixth or seventh month. Because a baby's arms are stronger and better coordinated than his legs, he may drag himself around by pushing with his arms, dragging his legs behind. His first progress may be in a backward direction. Later, he begins to dig in with his toes and knees. By eight months of age, he will probably scoot about on hands and knees in the traditional crawl position.

Once crawling begins, your child jubilantly explores all the aspects of the house he had to passively view from a distance for so long. He entertains himself for longer periods. The trade-off is you need to be especially vigilant about his activities. You must baby proof your house (check for safety hazards) before your baby can navigate on his own. He may be as curious about the electrical outlets in your house as he is about his toys.

Standing.

Between three and six months of age, your baby bears some weight on his legs when you stand him up. At first, he stiffly locks his legs. A few weeks later, he bounces by bending and straightening his legs. Check to see that he can stand with his feet flat. If he seems to stand on his toes (called toe walking), it may be a sign he is bearing his weight on his legs too early.

Your baby may begin pulling himself to a standing position as early as six months or as late as ten months of age. Most babies pull to a stand between the eighth and ninth months. You can help your baby by providing him with stable objects that won't topple over with his weight. Surround him with pillows to cushion him if he falls; but keep an eye out to make sure he doesn't suffocate.

At first, he is delighted with his upright posture. Happy gurgles may turn to wails of despair, though, when he discovers he doesn't know how to sit back down. You can help him learn to sit by sliding his hands down the supporting object to lower his buttocks to the floor.

During the 11th month, your child is probably able to stand well alone. About this same time, he may get himself to a stand by bending his knees and pushing off from a squatting position.

Cruising and Walking.

After he can pull himself up to a stand by holding onto a piece of furniture, he starts to cruise. Cruising consists of taking steps while holding onto the furniture for support. At first, he probably faces the furniture and shuffles sideways. As he gains confidence in his balance, he slides one hand as he walks forward. Cruising usually begins in the 9th month, but can begin as early as 7 1/2 months and as late as 12 1/2 months.

When your child bravely lets go of the furniture and takes his first solo steps, walking has begun. Learning to walk is as exciting for you as it is for your child. Walking with or without assistance usually occurs by a baby's first birthday, and most babies walk well by 14 months of age.

Your baby quickly grows more nimble and confident. By 18 months, he is able to walk backward. Between 14 and 21 months, he learns to walk up stairs, though it may be a couple of months longer until he can confidently walk down the stairs. At 18 months, he runs, albeit stiffly. In just a few months more, you'll find he will not look so precarious as he runs toward you.

Even as your baby is learning to move his body in space, she is also making leaps and bounds in her control of her hands and fingers. Move to the next page for a discussion of your newborn's developing fine motor skills.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.