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A Gripping Tale

The moment when a baby first discovers his hands is an exciting and memorable milestone. As he lies there, transfixed by the wiggling digits in front of his face, he has no idea what powerful tools he has found or of the amazing journey ahead of him. In the next few months, he'll go from making uncoordinated and somewhat frantic swipes to finally getting hold of an object and popping it in his mouth. Toward the end of his first year, your baby may well be a masterful and rather graceful explorer who uses his hands with intention and precision.

Gary Levy, Ph.D., is an associate professor of developmental psychology and research director of the University of Wyoming's Infant Development Center.

Up For Grabs

Babies enter the world with an array of preprogrammed abilities called reflexes. Although many reflexes disappear by the time your baby is 3 to 6 months of age, they become part of her repertoire of more complex, voluntary actions.

For example, newborns show a palmar, or grasping, reflex. If you touch your baby's palms, her hands will close tightly around your fingers. And if you pull her arm away from her body, she'll reflexively close her hand. Believe it or not, your baby has been exercising this reflex since the third trimester in utero.

Similarly, the asymmetric tonic, or fencing, reflex is thought to lead the way to hand-eye coordination. When an infant extends an arm to one side, her head will turn toward the extended arm. It's as if she's looking toward the imaginary object of her grasp.

These reflexes demonstrate that your baby is born to grab. But that isn't going to happen right away, because her skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems just aren't ready. In the meantime, however, she's preparing for this big developmental step in other ways.

When your baby is excited or happy, does she swing or flap her arms? How about when she's frustrated, tired, or hungry? Those repetitive movements stimulate the muscles and the areas of the brain your baby will need to move her arms voluntarily.

In the same way, although babies can't pick up objects early on, they rhythmically bend their wrists and rotate their hands. So the next time you see your baby wiggling her rattle around like a baton twirler, you'll know that she's laying the foundation for hand and arm control.

Mouthing Off

It's not long before everything in Baby's hands ends up in his mouth. And that's as it should be, because although his arms, legs, hands, and feet are pretty uncoordinated, his mouth works great!

Until he gains control over his arms and hands, in fact, his mouth is where he learns about objects. Clenching that plastic ring between his gums also lets your baby inspect it more closely with his fingers.

In addition, a baby's mouth helps him learn more about himself. When Baby feels his fingers groping around in there, he learns that he has some control over the movements of his hands.

A baby's earliest response to motion is to wave his arms around in a rush of excitement. But gradually, as he bats at a toy and then watches it bounce or swing, he learns that he can have an effect on the things around him.

With the development of binocular vision in the fourth month, Baby can more accurately judge the distance between himself and the things he's looking at. After months of swiping and missing, he can finally get a fix on an object and sometimes even grab it. If you dangle an interesting toy in front of a baby this age, he'll probably attempt to gather it in with both hands. Even when he misses it completely, his hands may still continue on to his mouth, undeterred.

Binocular vision also leads the way to visually directed reaching  -- the eyes lead the hands to the desired object. Babies as young as four or five months are capable of "catching" objects that move toward them in a slow and definite arc. With practice and the further development of his neurological and muscular systems, your baby may be able to intercept even faster-moving objects.

Mealtimes are an excellent opportunity for your baby to practice hand skills, such as raking in a piece of food and closing his fist around it. But watch out: Now that he can open his hand at will, dropping and throwing aren't far behind.

The focus is on fingers as Baby moves into the second half of his first year. Soon he may begin to use a forefinger and thumb to pick up a small toy or piece of food. (Now's the time to move small chokables out of reach.) In the months to come, he'll learn to handle objects by using just the pads of his fingers, and he'll even use his index finger to point.

Look, Ma, Two Hands!

Certain tasks require two separate actions, and your baby explores this capability throughout the second half of her first year. She may inspect a fuzzy ball by holding it with one hand and stroking it with the other. Later she'll use her hands in even more differentiated ways, such as shaking a toy with one hand while letting the other remain relaxed and steady.

By the way, even though your baby uses her hands in different ways, it's still too early to tell whether she's a lefty or a righty. Babies often favor one hand for a while, then switch to the other. The brain differentiation needed to establish true right- or left-handedness won't be in place until 3 years of age, although some children show clear signs of hand preference far earlier.

Getting A Grip

By 7 to 8 months, your baby may graduate to reaching for a toy with only one hand and discover that he can pass a toy from one hand to the other. All those months of saying "Wave bye-bye!" may also pay off at this time  -- to your mutual delight.

Older babies have developed a whole range of exploratory methods: shaking, banging, throwing, and dropping  -- not to mention the tried-and-true method of tasting. Your 10- to 11-month-old is a skilled picker-upper. Of course, the fun of picking things up can't compare to the fun of dropping them.

As your baby's first year comes to a close, he may enjoy sharing his grasping skills with you, passing you a toy that you can then return. He'll also move on to exercising some of his larger muscles, with the added thrill of pushing, throwing, and knocking things down.

It's an exciting time in a year that has held many surprising developments. Your baby has come a very long way from the days of flailing and flapping. And that certainly deserves a hand.