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Baby hands
how infants learn reaching, grasping and letting go

How does a baby learn to use his hands? This article follows fine motor development from early newborn reflexes like the palmar grasp reflex to learning the pincer grasp. It takes a great deal of hand-eye-coordination already to reach this important milestone of baby's hand-development - a skill that prepares for later tasks like writing, using scissors or to button a shirt.

Newborn Reflexes and Early Reaching

grasp reflexInfants do have a grasp reflex from birth till they are about 4 months old. Whenever something touches or strokes their palm newborn babies close their hands around it.

This grasp can be quite strong and you might find your hair, necklace, earrings, glasses or other unwanted objects caught in it. Luckily there is a easy way out of it too - so you don't need for hours for baby to let go, or force this tiny hand open. Infants will usually open their hands again if you stroke the back side of their hand.

During the first few weeks of their life's newborns do also have the ability to reach. After the first few weeks though they won't be able to do it again for about 3 months while higher brain centres take over in controlling movement. 

After they discover that those baby hands belong to themselves, they’ll relearn to reach at about 4 months of age. During this early stage, reaching and grasping occur at the same time.  Your baby can’t correct any mistakes while reaching yet. If she can’t get a hold of the object she sees, she’ll try again reaching and grasping together. She’ll close her hand when she sees that she’s reached that interesting toy.

With every attempt she improves her hand-eye-coordination. At this age your baby will only be able to deal with one toy at a time.

Baby's Grasping Improves

Around the 6th or 7th month your baby's early ability to reach and grasp improves a lot as she gains better control of her wrist, hands and fingers. 

Now your baby will try to grasp only when she’s actually reached the object. She’ll be able to control where to reach to with her eyes much better and grasps when she touches the object. 

She’ll also use both of her hands now instead of only one. This way your baby will be more successful in actually getting a hold of the toy she’s reaching for. 

Now most babies will be able to deal with 2 toys a time transferring one toy from one hand to the other if necessary. They also start banging two toys together.

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Developing the Pincer Grasp 

Until now you baby has used the palmar grasp, wrapping his whole hand around an object to pick it up. But small objects are hard to pick up that way.  The pincer grasp will allow him to pick up really small things like peas or sultanas, but also crumbs and coins of the floor.

Most babies start practicing the pincer grasp by trying to use only the tips of the fingers around 6 or 7 months. Eventually around their 9th or 10th month they can pick up things using only the tips of thumb and forefinger. Till the end of their first year they'll spend much time perfecting this grasp.

Using the pincer grasp doesn't only enable them to pick up much smaller tings more easily. It also helps them to set down things more precisely like stacking blocks or doing a puzzle.

I found baby led weaning to be a great way to provide lots of opportunities to practice that grasp. Preparing sticks of boiled carrots, potatoes and other suitable vegetables and fruit to pick up and munch all by themselves.

Considering the Weight of Objects

At about the same time babies also start to consider the estimated weight of things. For that, they'll need to vary the force of their arm movement and grip. This takes several attempts to practice with the same object, but also variation once they've figured out one toy. Offering your child objects and materials of different weight will help her improve the ability to adjust the use of force.

By 18 months most babies have gained enough experience to anticipate how heavy something might be. They remember objects much better and know that the same object weights the same.

Baby's Hands Open Up

Around the same time, between 9 and 18 months of age, your baby will get much better in letting go and dropping things. That can turn into an endlessly fun game for your baby which can get a bit annoying at times if you need to bend over to pick up all those things again. I found it helpful to tie things to her stroller using plastic links. I also gave her a bunch of toys to play with and drop while I was getting meals ready.

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