First-year fine motor skills

Did you know that tummy time, crawling and side-sitting can actually help with your baby’s fine motor development?

These basic movement patterns — and the postural control and stability needed to perform them — can affect skills later in life such as handwriting!

What can you do to help ensure that your baby’s fine motor development is on target? 

Do you need to spend money on the latest gadget/toy to help strengthen those little hands?

No! Developmental motor sequences are hard-wired, and babies are set up to naturally master fine motor skills without engineering or technology.

You can encourage exploration and competence by providing opportunities throughout your daily routine to practice these foundational skills.

Here are some key concepts in fine motor development and some simple activities to try:

Postural control and stability

This is the combination of strength and balance that enables us to keep one part of the body still while another part moves. For example, shoulder stability affects the ways in which the arms and hands move. 

Incorporate lots of floor time into your baby’s day. Reaching while in different positions on the floor — on the tummy, lying on his/her back, side-lying and sitting — can help strengthen your baby’s core muscles and improve shoulder stability.

Bilateral coordination 

This refers to the efficient use of both hands during an activity. As a child gets older, one hand often stabilizes or helps, while the other hand manipulates. 

Help your baby play patty cake, peek-a-boo or other simple action songs.

Sensation 

Hands are one of the most sensitive parts of our body! Our tactile sense interprets what we touch and helps guide movements. For fine motor skills, we rely on touch, vision and proprioception (an unconscious sense of joint position and movement). 

Allow your baby to learn by mouthing toys (no choking-sized objects) and playing with food (such as “painting” with pudding).

Dexterity 

There are 35 muscles that move the fingers and thumb — 17 in the palm of the hand and 18 in the forearm. Dexterity skill involves the small, precise, accurate and efficient movements of the hands.

  • Hand separation: Babies’ hands have two sides that do two different jobs. Precision and manipulation are accomplished by the side of the hand with the thumb and first two fingers, while stability and power are provided by the pinky and ring finger side. 

Use picture books to encourage pushing, poking and pointing with the index finger. Banging toys on the table or floor helps strengthen the other side of the hand.

  • Grasping patterns: Encourage babies to hold onto a variety objects of different sizes, shapes, textures and weights. 

Container play with common household objects of different sizes can help babies practice grasp and release. Start with larger objects and proceed to smaller ones. Encourage your child to put things into containers and then take them out again and again. Dumping, banging, hiding and stacking items should be encouraged as well because such actions all require different grasping patterns.

  • Palmar arches: The arches of the hand enable grasping objects and help provide a base of support for skilled finger movement. 

Crawling as well as pushing up while in a tummy-time position can help develop the muscles and arches toward the pinky side of the hand. 

Rattles and finger foods, meanwhile, help develop the skilled side of the hand (thumb and first two fingers).

If you have concerns about your baby’s fine motor development, contact your pediatrician who may refer you to a rehabilitation specialist such as an (occupational or physical therapist). 

Some red flags in the first year could include not bringing hands to mouth, making no attempt to reach for or hold objects, the absence of bringing both hands together in play or weakness in the ability to hold onto objects. 


Capernaum Pediatric Therapy of Edina uses a play-based approach to help children achieve developmental milestones and maximize their functional potential. This article was inspired by occupational therapists/teachers, including Mary Benbow, Rhoda Erhardt and Maryanne Bruni.