I like to move it! A handy guide to your baby's physical milestones

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"Wow, as a parent this pisses me off."(JGIJamie Grill/ Getty Images)
"Wow, as a parent this pisses me off."(JGIJamie Grill/ Getty Images)

Becoming a new parent is exciting but also nerve-racking at the same time. What should baby be able to do by when is usually a top concern. 

Here’s a handy summary of what that little body should be able to do (and sometimes should be able to unlearn again) at the different stages.

The first few weeks

What can Baby do?

Your baby doesn’t move voluntarily yet. All movement is influenced by a handful of primitive reflexes such as: 

The grasp reflex:

Her hands are closed most of the time. The startle (also called Moro) reflex is stimulated when Baby’s head falls back – she then balls her hands into fists, and her arms shoot out and swiftly back in again.

The root reflex:

The root reflex is stimulated when you touch her cheek, next to her mouth. This reflex gets her to turn her head in the direction of the spot you touched. It’s an important one for feeding.

The tonic neck reflex:

The tonic neck reflex  (or fencing position) sees your baby stretching out her arm and leg on the same side as the side toward which she turns her head.

Experts say this movement is the beginning of hand-eye coordination as Baby can see her hand in this way.

How you can help

  • Gently rock your baby, often.
  • Avoid jerky movements.
  • Start massaging your baby toward the end of the second week.

Massage is an excellent way to develop her awareness of her own body. This gives her the security she needs to move comfortably and with self-confidence later in life.

Two to six weeks

What can Baby do?

At first, reflex movements are still the order of the day, although they systematically start disappearing around six weeks.

Expect the following in terms of how she moves her arms, hands and head:

The arms move more and more, but it’s still involuntary. Sometimes these are jerky movements, and other times they’re more gracious and flowing.

The hands slowly open up and become less clenched, and the body is not as curled up any longer.

If she’s put on her tummy, she’ll start lifting her head. And if you hold her in a sitting position, she’ll be able to start holding her head up for a bit.

If you pull her up by her arms from a lying position, she’ll start keeping her head in line with her body.

How you can help

Put her on her tummy as often as you can. It will strengthen her back and neck muscles, essential for the head control. The latter is, in turn, important for crawling.

There’s only a small window of time when it’s comfy for baby to lie on her tummy on Mom or Dad’s chest, so do it now, while you can.

Around four weeks is a good time to put a mobile up above the nappy changing station. Hang it above her head.

It should encourage her to keep her neck in the middle and strengthen the neck muscles in this way.

Help her kick. Bath time is an excellent opportunity for this exercise.

Six to 12 weeks

What can Baby do?

Baby is now starting to gain more control over her movements, especially over her arms.

Watch and see what happens with those arms and her head:

She starts striking out at objects and also sometimes even reaches for them.

By three months your baby should be able to hold her head up if she’s sitting on your lap. If she’s on her tummy, she should be able to hold her head at a 45° angle for a little while.

How you can help

Encourage every little strike and reach movement your baby makes, even if it appears to be unsuccessful over and over again at first.

Stroke the top of your baby’s fists to encourage her to spontaneously open her hand (rather than forcing it open).

Regularly pull your baby up from a lying to a sitting position. It’s a good exercise for her tummy muscles.

Continue making time for lying on her tummy. Start making it more interesting by placing a mirror or a cute toy in front of her so that she has something to look at.

Or, buy a play mat with different textures, so that she has something to rub and grab.

Lay your baby down on her back, and hang a ball with a bell near her feet. The reward of the ringing bell every time she kicks is just the ticket to do it again and again.

Don’t keep your baby in her baby chair for too long. This static position doesn’t do her any favours.

Let your baby sleep on her side, but don’t put her down on the same side every time. This offers her the opportunity to develop the muscles she needs for rolling over and crawling.

You can use a wedge or a rolled-up towel to ensure she remains on her side.

Three to six months

What can Baby do?

Big things will start happening now, and rolling over and sitting are probably the most exciting.

Your baby starts pushing herself up when she’s on her tummy – initially on her elbows and later with straight arms. As her self-confidence grows and her muscle control improves, she deliberately starts reaching for close objects.

At about five months, when she’s lying on her back, your baby will start digging in her feet and arch her back (the experts call it “bridging”).

After a while, she’ll “accidentally” roll over onto her stomach from this movement. Once she gets used to rolling over accidentally, she’ll consciously try and roll, and then she’ll start practising it until she succeeds.

This is at about six months. By this time (six months) your baby should be able to either roll over from her tummy to her back (and not just accidentally) or vice versa. Some babies can roll both ways.

Foot play is another important movement milestone, and it helps Baby strengthen her tummy muscles.

She also loves putting her feet in her mouth! She loves standing on your lap.

At some point between five and six months, your baby will learn to sit.

At first, she’ll lean forward, propping herself up with her hands, but by roughly six months she’ll possibly be okay without this support.

How you can help

Sitting, balancing and rolling skills are now of greatest importance for your baby because these are the things that form the foundation for almost all future development of motor skills.

Get her moving! Rock, roll and swing your baby often. Play aeroplane by flying her through the air (slowly!). It’s super important to develop her muscles and for her spatial perception.

You can easily incorporate these exercises during nappy changes or when she’s getting dressed by bending her legs and rolling her from side to side when you slip the nappy in under her bum. 

Use action rhymes to get her to move. Pull baby around the house in a sturdy cardboard box, or gently swing her in a hammock.

Place her favourite toys just out of her reach so that she needs to work to get them.

Start holding your baby lower down on her body. In this way, you force her to use her neck and tummy muscles to stay upright.

Standing in your lap is another game that can boost your baby’s gross motor skill development around six months.

Six to nine months

What can Baby do?

Where your baby might have been comfortable on her back before, she now almost starts loathing it, and she’ll moan and groan if you put her down on her back to change her nappy. What your baby wants to do now is sit, roll onto her tummy and crawl.

At some point during these months, your baby should be able to sit independently. By nine months she can sit up by herself from another position (like lying) and move into yet another position from the seated one.

Like with rolling over, crawling also sometimes happens “by mistake”. Your baby finds herself in the crawling position, sways from side to side a little, falls and tries again the next day.

She’ll keep going until one day she’ll just get the hang of it. Many babies start out crawling backwards, so don’t worry at all if your baby is one of them.

Most babies crawl well by nine months, although some start at 10 months.

Experts describe crawling as very important and instrumental – especially for hand-eye coordination and bilateral integration, which means the seamless use of the two halves of the body.

This is in turn important for, among other things, skills acquired later including skipping, cutting and reading. If your baby isn’t crawling and shows signs of wanting to walk, consult an occupational therapist.

How you can help

Teach your baby to sit from a lying position:

Hold one of her arms, get her to roll to the opposite side, and then pull her up into a sitting position. This teaches the muscles the sensation of movement.

Exercise her shoulder muscles by getting her to pour – from one plastic mug to the next. The weight of the water in the mug provides the resistance needed to work out the shoulder and upper arm muscles.

Allow her to bounce on your lap to her heart’s content.

While she’s on your lap, lift one of your legs just enough to get a balanced reaction from her. This will improve her ability to hold her balance.

By nine months you could start considering swimming lessons.

Encourage crawling by placing toys just out of her reach, among other ways.

Or sit on the floor, with legs stretched out, and place your baby on her tummy, across your legs, with her arms and torso to your one side and her legs to the other.

This puts her in a natural crawling position and might compel her to take her weight on her arms and legs.

If she’s already a boss at crawling, make it “harder” by getting her to crawl over soft obstacles such as cushions and blankets.

Tummy time is still important to develop those neck and back muscles.

Nine to 12 months

What can Baby do?

The first step is the big movement milestone everyone is always looking out for at this stage.

But there’s no guarantee – and it’s also not important at all – that your baby will be walking by 12 months.

Some children walk at nine months, while others only do so at 16 months.

During this time:

Your baby starts pulling herself up to stand – against basically anything. As she becomes more adept at getting up, she’ll start swaying on her legs in the standing position.

The swaying on her legs could last for weeks before she finally takes that first little step forward, while she’s holding onto something, of course.

Thereafter she’ll start taking more and more steps while holding onto the furniture.

Baby also moves from one position to another quite easily – for instance, she goes from sitting to half-kneeling and from kneeling to standing.

How you can help?

Dress your baby in comfy clothes that allow for crawling, rolling and pulling herself and make it easy.

Stand your baby up against the bath when you undress her for a bath and encourage supported walking in this way.

Teach your baby to go down the stairs backwards.

Get a wagon or cart (or toy lawnmower) she can push. This has “taught” many a child to walk.

Hold the hook part of a clothes hanger and get your baby to hold the crossbar. Now “pull” your baby forward step by step.

Best advice

Perhaps you grew up sleeping on your tummy. But experts nowadays warn against babies sleeping on their tummies.

The reason?

There’s a bigger risk for cot death when Baby faces down. So never put Baby down on her tummy for a nap or the night.

But your baby’s muscles get no exercise when she sleeps on her back – so make sure to give her enough tummy time during the day when she’s awake.

Did you know?

Close-sensory stimulation (including balance and movement, among others) not only promotes stronger muscles but also a good self-image.

Without well-developed gross motor skills, your child won’t be able to properly master important fine motor skills such as writing.

Development is not a race – it happens naturally, by itself, says occupational therapist Rosa-Marié Olivier from Alberton.

“We live in an achievement-oriented society, which puts parents under immense pressure because everyone wants to know all the time:

  • Is she walking yet?
  • Is she crawling yet?

But the order and quality of development are much more important than the pace.”

It’s for instance much more important for a baby to first rollover, then sit up and then crawl than for her to sit at six months and crawl at nine months already.

She can take her sweet time to start crawling, as long as she crawls before she walks!

Super tip:

No one person is good with everything. Help your child to meet all the important movement milestones according to her potential.

Don’t overstimulate her in an attempt to make her the best dancer, swimmer and cyclist. A happy child is much more important.

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