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If you are a parent with a baby that is more than a month old, you have probably heard about the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ-3). This is a questionnaire that you will fill out every couple of months for your baby for the first five years, and it’s designed to screen for developmental delays. The questions center around development in skills separated into 5 categories – communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal-social. Each category contains 6 skills and asks you to rank each one on whether your child does it always, sometimes or not yet. The score for each category is compared to what is considered average for a child of the same age. It then is easy to tell if your child is at risk or falling behind in a certain category.
While all the categories are important, this article answers the question “how to help baby develop gross motor skills” by focusing on activities that can be used to improve gross motor skill development in babies up to 18 months old.
My son is one of those kids that is overly cautious and not into working any harder than necessary. The result is that he has been behind in gross motor skill development pretty chronically for the first 1.5 years of his life despite being on track for the other 4 ASQ-3 categories.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some activities to incorporate to encourage the development of these important skills. However, before you start, you will want to figure out what motivates your child. For my son, food and car keys were the ultimate motivators. Other items just didn’t hold enough appeal to get him to do things he didn’t want to.
Babies Not Yet Crawling
If your baby isn’t crawling yet, then focus on activities that build a strong motor skill base.
Tummy time is important from birth. This is the first type of exercise baby will do start working on those motor skills. If your baby hates tummy time, don’t be disheartened. There are ways to do modified tummy time to get baby used to the idea. Some ways to modify include using a Boppy pillow to prop baby’s chest up and laying on your back and putting baby on your chest. These methods get baby off her back and used to being on her stomach. However, it’s important to eventually progress to traditional tummy time for the full benefits. You should aim for increasing amounts of tummy time (at least 30 to 60 minutes a day), but this can be broken down into sessions that are only a couple of minutes long. Doing a minute or two of tummy time after every diaper change is a way to get in some good practice.
Rolling is one of the first major gross motor milestones. Lots of tummy time helps encourage this skill, but once baby develops it, keep encouraging rolling. Rolling is a great way for baby to start getting from point A to point B before crawling, and all that rolling helps further strengthen the abdominal muscles which are important for the upcoming gross motor milestones.
Baby will likely want to sit and look around well before she is actually able to stay upright on her own. Encourage this by sitting baby on the floor between your legs. Let her use your legs to help balance. Slowly decrease the amount of support you provide and see how long she can sit before you need to help her rebalance. At first this will be exhausting for baby but doing this consistently will quickly build up her stamina.
Once baby has the core strength to roll over and stay sitting on his own, you can start encouraging him being on his knees. There are a few ways to go about doing this. An activity table is great because it’s low enough that baby can kneel and reach the buttons. However, it’s too high to reach them while sitting. Putting baby on his knees to balance against the table and play helps him get used to supporting his weight with his knees which is important for crawling.
You can also help baby get into a crawling position and hold the hands and knees pose for a minute. This can be done by helping to support baby’s legs in the crawling position and gradually decrease the support as baby gets stronger.
Jumperoos can be fun for babies as they start to reach the point of having enough core strength to sit up. These encourage putting weight on the legs and bending the knees to bounce. However, keep in mind that while the legs get stronger, the support provided by the jumperoo is enough that core strength isn’t developed as much, so it’s important to encourage core strength development through other methods.
Note: Some babies are very interested and willing to get moving. However, others are more reluctant and would prefer to have mom and dad (or older siblings) move them from point A to B. Pay attention to your baby’s personality and know that you may have to let him struggle for a bit to learn that he is capable of moving himself. With my son, he learned to roll, sit and stand while leaning against something. However, he had no desire to move himself from laying to sitting or sitting to standing.
Babies That Are Crawling (or close to it)
Encourage Pulling To Stand
Before baby can walk, he has to be able to stand. Some babies quickly figure out that they can get into a lot more trouble by pulling up on coffee tables and grabbing papers, cell phones or food. However, if your child is more hesitant, pull out the super desirable object you identified at the beginning and place it on a low table. Make sure your child is sitting near the table and knows the object is there. For some children that may be enough to entice them to stand.
If your baby isn’t willing to pull up on a coffee table, you may need to start with a lower object. In this case, remove your couch cushion. Sit baby on the floor by the cushion-less couch and use your tempting object to convince baby to pull up. You may need to provide a little boost, and that’s okay. Keep trying and each time provide a little less help. Chances are good, baby will figure out he actually is capable of doing it himself.
Once your child is pulling up, you can still use the cushion-less couch trick to teach baby to climb onto things. A couch without a cushion is the perfect height for a new climber to gain some confidence.
Climbing is great for babies to continue developing their gross motor skills. Playgrounds with play equipment involving steps, tunnels and slides are great for encouraging your child to explore, navigate different terrain and work on those climbing skills. I suggest finding a playground that has separate play areas for little kids versus older kids. This seems to keep a slower paced area that is safe for your little one to play without getting trampled by the bigger kids. These little kid play areas are usually shorter which makes it easier for you to stay close and offer a helping hand while keeping your feet on the ground.
If you are struggling with bad weather, don’t forget to look for indoor playground options. Many fast food restaurants and shopping malls have indoor play areas. Many cities have indoor play centers of various designs as well. These places can be great for getting energy out of a new mover on a rainy day.
Sometimes our kids are reluctant to walk because they lack confidence. Push toys can be great for strengthening the walking muscles but still providing a secure, supportive feeling. I really like this Melissa and Doug Alligator Push Toy as a starter push toy. It’s solid and sturdy which provides a lot of support. However, once walking with this got easy, a plastic push lawn mower was a good next step. The plastic push toy wasn’t as stable, so it required more self-support from my son.
I suggest incorporating a walk with the push toy into your daily routine. We started walking down the street every day after I got home from work. My son would push his toy down the sidewalk, and I would supervise and make sure he stayed on the sidewalk. This helped him develop the necessary muscles while still feeling secure. I found walking outside was more effective than inside because inside he kept running into things and would quickly get frustrated.
Toys Requiring Hands-Free Standing
Toys that require your toddler to stand without holding own are great for distracting them enough that they will stand without support. We got a plastic t-ball set that my son was intrigued by enough that he would stand and take an occasional step without any support.
This goes along with encouraging more walking. Some stores have kid-sized carts that are just the right height. However, if your local stores don’t have these tiny carts, kids can still help push the full-sized cart. You will need to help, but pushing a big cart makes your toddler feel important and gets in valuable walking muscle exercise while you are shopping.
Walking While Holding A Hand
Once our son would walk while holding someone’s hand, we started having him walk everywhere holding a hand. When we went to the store, we would have him walk from the car into the store while holding our hands. When we run errands, he spends a lot of time in a car seat, so this routine helps him get exercise while we get things done.
We found that this, plus daily push toy walks and pushing the shopping carts really helped him get the confidence to take his first steps.
Walking On Uneven Ground
Walking on surfaces that are completely (or almost) flat and hard is a great way to start. However, to up the difficulty level for your little one that doesn’t want to let go of your hand, go for some uneven surfaces. Walking through the grass or on the mulch at a playground is a great way to work on stabilizing muscles.
Tempt the First Steps
Eventually, your little one will need to get brave and take the first unsupported steps. You will start to notice when your child is ready to take the first steps and just needs to develop the confidence. This is where you can pull out the shiny object you identified above. Tempt your child with something they love but usually can’t play with, but only allow them to have it if they are standing unsupported. You can also encourage them to step forward one or two steps to reach it. Just make sure that you do provide the reward and let your child play with the object.
We did this with our son and car keys. We went into the middle of the room and stood him up, then gave him the keys and let him stand on his own. He was so entertained that he forgot that he wasn’t holding onto anything. When he would realize and sit down, the keys went away, and we would start over. We then started getting him to take one or two steps to get the keys. Once we did that a couple of times, he suddenly realized he could walk and started walking everywhere.
Did your child take off walking early or were they a late walker? What worked for you to encourage gross motor skills?
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Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Mom, wife, veterinary pharmacist, equestrian, ice cream lover and occasional hot mess