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When you first set eyes on your scrunched-up newborn, it’s hard to imagine her even straightening her legs, let alone using them to sit, stand and eventually walk. In fact, every day her body is becoming stronger and more coordinated as she meets her movement milestones.
Paediatrician Dr Scott Dunlop says a baby’s physical abilities start to develop immediately after birth. “Gross motor, fine motor, language and even social abilities start to evolve as early as the first six weeks of life,” he says.
There are many ways you can help your tiny baby develop into a confident toddler. Our guide takes you through your child’s magical journey to mobility.
It takes time for your baby to ‘uncurl’. Peter Walker, a physical therapist and author of Developmental Baby Massage says, “Your baby is born in a ball-like position known as physiological flexion. As she adjusts to life outside the womb, she’ll stretch out her limbs.”
Your newborn’s head is heavy, wobbly and needs support. “Neck muscles will strengthen in the first three months, allowing her head and body control to improve,” says Dr Dunlop. “This becomes the foundation for future motor development.”
Increased neck control allows your newborn to turn her head and even raise it when she’s lying on her back from about six to eight weeks. This is the beginning of learning to sit. Your baby might also lift her head and shoulders when lying on her tummy, helping her to develop the muscles she needs to roll from front to back.
Research shows that a baby placed on her front for short periods during waking hours – tummy time – will roll, crawl, sit, pull up and walk sooner than a baby who stays on her back. “Tummy time helps your baby to straighten out,” says Peter.
As your baby’s hand control increases you might also notice some progress with her fine motor skills.
Tummy time helps Baby strengthen their necks muscles to support their head – it’s also super cute to see the way their face changes in this position!
As your baby enters her fourth month she’ll probably be able to lift her head and shoulders when lying on her tummy, using her arms for support. This strengthens the muscles she’ll soon use to sit and crawl. It also improves her view.
By this age your baby may have flipped over from front to back and, between four and six months, she may also be rolling back to front. This often happens when she starts bending her knees, bringing up her feet, then flipping over by accident. Rolling is an essential skill as it teaches your baby to transfer weight from one side of her body to the other. She’ll use the same technique to crawl, then walk.
If you hold your baby in a standing position she might bounce up and down on her feet. She’s testing out her knees. Into her fifth month your baby might also try to sit without assistance. She still needs to work out how to balance, so make sure she’s well supported.
As your little one gets stronger, she might start to sit unassisted.
Over the next few months your baby will probably master sitting unsupported, and when she wobbles she’ll be able to right herself. “Sitting unaided means she can now concentrate on other milestones, including fine motor skills,” says Scott. Now your baby is no longer using her hands for support, she’ll start grabbing at toys. “Sitting unsupported is closely linked to your baby’s ability to transfer objects from one hand to the other,” he says.
You might notice pre-crawling movements as your baby pushes herself up off the floor, rocking backwards and forwards on her hands and knees. And she’ll probably swap bouncing on your lap by bending her knees for a more ‘tramping’ motion, moving her feet in preparation for walking.
Not all babies will crawl, and many won’t crawl in the typical fashion.
Most babies start crawling between seven and 11 months, but not always in the conventional style. “Not all babies will crawl, and many won’t crawl in the typical fashion. Initial attempts will be uncoordinated, and may see your baby propel herself backwards,” says Scott.
“If her arms are stronger than her legs she might ‘commando crawl’, moving on her belly, or she might shuffle on her bottom.”
Although some babies never crawl, it’s a useful skill. “Crawling builds strength and stability in the shoulders and hips,” says Dr Dunlop. “But remember, if your baby is achieving other motor milestones like pulling up to her knees while holding the couch, then pulling to her feet, not crawling is not necessarily a concern.” And if your baby is standing she could soon be cruising – side-stepping while holding onto furniture for support. This strengthens her hip muscles to support her legs for walking.
Whether she’s rolling, crawling or shuffling on her bottom, chances are your baby has hit her first birthday with her own unique method of getting around. She might even be walking. “The average age for taking first steps is around 13 months, but the usual developmental window is nine to 18 months,” says Dr Dunlop. “If an otherwise normal child isn’t walking by 18 months it might just be that Mum or Dad was a late walker and she is following suit. If you’re concerned, speak to your GP.”
Although your baby is likely to take to her feet over the next six months, physical therapist Peter Walker says it’s important to let your baby progress at her own pace. “Your child might not start walking as quickly as her peers, but perhaps her fine motor skills are excellent or she’s racing ahead with her speech,” he says.
Your baby will now be honing the ability to grab objects between her fingers and thumb as she starts feeding herself, or holds crayons and scribbles with them. She’ll also have the hand control to point – a gesture unique to humans. This key stage leads to naming objects and is therefore an important step in her grasp of language.
Deliberately dropping or throwing her toys to see where they go.
Showing a preference for one hand, but using both of them happily.
Holding small toys or objects in both hands at the same time.
Looking in the right direction for toys that have rolled out of sight.
Building a tower of two or more bricks.
Attempting to feed herself with a spoon.
By 18 months your toddler might be a proficient walker. She might even motor up the stairs – although she’s likely to need help getting back down. She’ll also enjoy scaling the sofa, but won’t be able to climb off it just yet.
“Your toddler will love testing her physical limits, frequently breaking into a run or racing around the house on a ride-on toy,” says Scott. “Trying out different methods of movement improves her coordination.”
Her language skills are developing, too. From the age of two, she’ll put words together in simple sentences, such as “Daddy work”. Now that she can run about the house and communicate, your toddler is becoming her own person.