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Milestones to Independent Movement

July 19, 2020

Seeing your baby achieve developmental milestones is so exciting and  heartwarming (I may have shed a tear recently at the sight of the first tooth) but it can also bring about feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Should my baby be doing this by now? Is my baby as mobile as they should be? Am I doing enough to help them? 

Nature takes care of a lot of this but the parental role is also very important. Understanding your baby’s development and knowing when your baby is working on important milestones enables you to be fully responsive to them and help them to navigate the sensations they are experiencing.

Child walking

The physical milestones 

We can break babies’ physical development down into three categories:

  • Locomotion - the ability to move from here to there
  • Stability - the  ability to maintain balance while still or in motion
  • Manipulation - the ability to effect objects with part of the body or an instrument

All whole body movements are made up of a combination of these patterns but there are other elements that are needed to support them. These can be grouped into sensory factors (the five senses, balance or vestibular system and intuition - or proprioception) and motor elements (power, coordination and control.

When babies are born they don’t fully understand that they have a body. Body awareness develops over time as the body and the brain get acquainted and in a very orderly fashion, from the top down and the inside out. The general pattern tends to be:

  • They begin by moving their head and neck so they can lift their head voluntarily
  • They gain control from their shoulders out to their arms and the beginnings of muscle tone in their fingers for grasping, pinching and holding (early hand movements are actually primitive reflexes and not deliberate actions).
  • The upper torso begins to build strength and control to hold the body upright.
  • Strength develops in the lower torso in the legs and finally the feet to support crawling, sitting up, standing and walking.

What is normal?

windows of timing for baby motor milestones

Although the acquisition of each physical skill tends to happen in the same order, when it happens is much more individual and unique to each baby. 

The World Health Organisation conducted a study in 2006 in five different countries to assess the age ranges at which particular gross motor skills appear. The physical milestones they focused on were: sitting without support, standing with assistance, hands and knees crawling, walking with assistance, standing alone and walking alone. WHO refers to these age ranges as “windows of achievement” and the results showed a vast disparity in when children achieve each stage and a good degree of overlap.

If your baby skips a stage or follows a different order it is not necessarily a cause for concern so long as they continue to make progress. Sometimes your baby may seem to lose a skill due to concentrating on gaining a new ability. Once they have mastered the new skill, you will see that the old ones reappear. If your baby is ill, they might temporarily regress with their movement. As soon as they are feeling better again they will be right back where they were. Any concerns should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

Child walking

Personality plays a huge part

Your baby will reach milestones at a rate that is unique to them. Parents sometimes think that intellect is the driving force whereas it is actually your baby’s personality that is largely responsible. Learning a new skill requires a lot of practice and how your baby responds to failure when working to acquire a new skill can affect how quickly they pick it up. Some babies may try the new skill, find they can’t do it, become frustrated and leave trying again for a few months. Another may try, fail, become frustrated but are still spurred on to try again until they have mastered the skill. 

Child walking

How can you help?

  • Be responsive to your baby’s needs and try to provide the right amount of stimulation: too little means they might not develop to their full potential and too much can be overwhelming.
  • Make sure they can move around and practice their new abilities freely, easily and safely. 
  • Ensure plenty of opportunities for floor play during the day both on their back and front for them to roll, kick, squirm and wriggle. 
  • Give them a variety of objects to reach for. Offer toys that fit in one hand as well as bigger objects that require a two-handed grip. Vary their shape, too: picking up a ball, for instance, requires different skills than grasping a cube. And place both still and moving objects within reach, sometimes to your child's side, so they have to turn their body to grasp them.
  • Rock and swing your baby, bounce them on your knee, or dance together to give their vestibular system a variety of sensations.
  • Let them crawl on a variety of safe surfaces.
  • Give them access to sturdy apparatus or furniture that's at a good height for them to pull themselves up on. Wheeled toys that they can hold on to and push around also encourage movement.
  • Give them plenty of safe areas to walk in at home so they can learn to negotiate all kinds of floors and different surfaces both inside and out.

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