A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Fine and gross motor skills: The foundations to life

Childhood development - fine and gross motor skills

Fine motor skills are things your child can do that require the coordination of several muscles working together. Gross motor skills are much larger movements your child makes with the other parts of their body.

From the moment a baby is born, their brain is drastically changing and learning new things. This process, also known as development, is the foundation to life. Fine and gross motor skills are some of your child’s early developmental milestones.

Fine motor skills are things your child can do that require the coordination of several muscles working together. For example, grabbing some food off a tray or talking. Gross motor skills are much larger movements your child makes with the other parts of their body, such as crawling or walking.

“Every child should expect to hit certain fine and gross motor milestones like grabbing things, talking and walking as they grow up,” said Dr. John Arnold, pediatrician with Marshfield Children’s. “As a pediatrician, we are trained to check on those developmental milestones during a well-child checkup to make sure the child doesn’t get too far behind.”

Why developmental milestones are important

Your child’s pediatrician should closely monitor developmental milestones, like those for fine and gross motor skills. If your child is not meeting these milestones, it can help your pediatrician find problems early.

“I do different motor skills tests to see how a concussion has affected a child,” Dr. Arnold said. “If there are problems with their reflexes, maybe there is a problem in the spinal cord area. The idea is to see if development is normal or if there is an issue you need to look further into.”

The earlier your child’s pediatrician can find the problem, the better the outcome is.

For example, say a child has trouble talking and that continues into kindergarten. At that point, it may take longer to fix the issue. Your child also may have trouble with friends and in school because they have a hard time talking.

Fine motor skill example: Talking

Around a year of age, it is average for a child to be able to say mom, dad and a few other words. If they are not able to do this, your child’s pediatrician will try to see if your child can understand words.

“We try to see if they understand everything. If they do, then they possibly just have an expressive problem,” Dr. Arnold said. “If the problem continues to the 15-month check-up, we can recommend speech therapy.”

If the child does not understand what an adult is saying at a year old, that is a larger problem and your child’s pediatrician will likely recommend speech therapy.

Gross motor skill example: Walking

At about nine months of age, a child is typically pulling itself up next to a chair and holding on. At a year, they are typically walking.

However, if a child is having trouble with walking, it is a sign that something is wrong.

“If a child has trouble putting their foot down flat, that can be a sign of a tight Achilles tendon,” Dr. Arnold said. “In that case, the earlier I can get them into therapy to stretch that Achilles tendon out, the better it is down the road.”

When do fine and gross motor skills begin and end?

Fine and gross motor skills can become apparent in babies as early as two months of age. These milestones can include smiling when people talk to the baby or starting to make noises. Next, your child will start to roll over and grab things.

Motor skills are nearly done developing when your child is in the early to middle adolescent stage.

“Teens are still a little clumsy and sometimes things like stuttering can happen into adulthood, but we eventually find ways to cope with all of these common developmental issues,” Dr. Arnold said. “Coordination is an important skill that develops throughout life.”

Common barriers to proper development

Lack of attention is a common barrier to proper development. Children that are left in their playpens with little interaction at a young age are typically behind in both fine and gross motor development.

The other common barrier are children with different genetic conditions that cause developmental delays. Removing these concerns from the list is another reason why pediatricians look at developmental milestones.

In most cases, Dr. Arnold says that parents have been trying everything to improve their child’s fine and gross motor skills. When that child doesn’t meet the parent’s expectations that can be discouraging.

“I always remind parents that these developmental milestones are averages, not absolutes,” Dr. Arnold said. “In most cases, there are things we can do to help kids that are behind.”

To learn more about developmental milestones and how to apply them to your child, talk to your child’s pediatrician.

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