Stop 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.