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Baby Steps

From the moment your baby is born you'll watch his progress, anticipating each new achievement. You may worry if he takes his time reaching a milestone, but there's usually no cause for concern. For one thing, the range of what's normal for most motor milestones is broad. Although it can be frustrating if Baby's a late bloomer, he and his early-bird peers are probably all "normal." Each is simply exhibiting his own personal tendencies. What's more, a single delay doesn't set off alarms with doctors. "We don't isolate single activities," says Don Schiff, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. "It's combinations of missed milestones that we consider a warning sign."

If you're really concerned, though, talk to your pediatrician; she may want to do some testing. Meanwhile, you can help Baby reach the following 13 motor milestones by providing him with plenty of opportunities to practice his skills. Just remember that he's on hiw own schedule; encourage him, but don't push it.

Tekla S. Nee, a mother of three, is the author of The Mommy Zone: Tales from the Trenches of Parenthood.

Turns Head Side to Side
Birth to 1 month

Development of Neck Muscles

This is the earliest voluntary movement. If Baby isn't doing it within a month, notify her pediatrician, who'll check her muscle tone. Weak muscle tone is usually only temporary, but if your baby's muscles are underdeveloped, the pediatrician may want to evaluate her central nervous system.

How to Help Lay her on her back next to something eye-catching. You can also lie down beside her until she looks at you, then switch sides.

The Mini Push-Up
2 to 4 months

Development of Shoulder Muscles

One of the first ways babies explore the world is by pushing themselves up with their arms, a motion called the mini push-up. A baby having trouble with this skill may be spending too much time sitting or lying on his back, says Judith Murphy, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University.

Joan Batista of Arlington, MA, remembers that her son, Daniel, was late to push himself up. He had the strength to lift his head early on, but he would cry every time he was placed on his stomach, so he never had the chance to try the mini push-up. When Daniel finally did attempt it, at 3 months, "he didn't struggle at all," says Batista.

How to Help Giving Baby plenty of floor time will encourage him to lift his head and look around. You can also try lying on the floor, head-to-head with your baby, showing him a toy and then holding it up so that he must lift himself to be able to see it.

Swipes at Objects
2 to 5 months

Control of Hand Muscles

Swiping requires a lot of coordination. "First the baby has to be able to see the object, and then she has to connect what she sees with her own hand," says Dr. Schiff. Swiping also teaches babies about cause and effect: When they bat at the toy, it moves. But don't worry about a timetable for this milestone, so long as there's evidence that Baby's vision is fine and she interacts with others.

How to Help Encourage those little hands to reach out and swat something by hanging a mobile just out of Baby's reach above her crib. You can also attach a few light toys to an elastic cord that's stretched tightly across the crib. Secure the cord well and remove it before your baby is able to grab the toys.

Brings Both Hands Together
2 to 5 months

Suppression of the Tonic Neck Reflex

Babies arrive in the world armed with reflexes that protect them until they gain control of their body. When an infant is placed on his back with his head turned to one side, the tonic neck reflex causes him to go into a "fencing" position, with the arm on that side extended, the knee on that side flexed, and the opposite arm bent. As he overcomes this reflex and learns to bring his hands together, he'll start to use each side of his body separately and to watch and use his hands voluntarily. Usually Baby's movements will become more purposeful in time. "This reflex must be inhibited because we humans need our hands in front of us where we can see them," says Claire B. Kopp, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychology at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA. If the reflex hasn't faded in 6 months, Baby's pediatrician may check his neurological functioning or evaluate him for metabolic abnormalities.

How to Help To help the process move more smoothly  -- and have fun  -- show your baby how to clap and play patty-cake.

Rolls in One Direction
3 to 7 months

Development of Trunk Muscles

With most parents putting babies on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, it's common for babies to master the more complex back-to-front roll before the simpler front-to-back maneuver.

If Baby is late to roll in either direction, consider his other milestone achievements. "Most babies turn from their tummies to their backs between 4 and 5 months. However, if a child isn't turning over but can sit by 6 months, I'm usually not concerned," says Dr. Schiff.

How to Help If you put your baby to sleep on her back, place her on her stomach to play at other times of the day. Make sure the surface is moderately hard and that there is nothing nearby that Baby could suffocate on. If she enjoys it, you can gently help roll her over.

Grasps Objects
3 to 7 months

Suppression of the Grasp Reflex

Another immensely complex process, grasping progresses from a vague palming motion that involves the whole hand to a more specific pincer motion involving several fingers and the thumb. "Grasping is important because we are a tool-using species," says Kopp. "And parents are eager for their babies to be able to play with all those cute toys."

How to Help Provide a rattle, a teething ring that fits your baby's tiny hand, a light stuffed doll, or any object that's easy to grasp  -- the noisier the better. Choose things that are safe to chew on, since most everything finds its way to his mouth eventually. Many toy stores carry child-development toys designed to get babies grasping and passing items from hand to hand. Starting around 6 months, give your baby finger foods like Cheerios that will encourage him to use his thumbs to pick them up.

Sits Unsupported
5 to 9 months

Development of Trunk Muscles and Improved Balance

Pediatricians look for this key achievement by 8 or 9 months. "We look for signs that the child is moving her limbs in a coordinated fashion," says Dr. Schiff. "If not, we check to see that she has appropriate muscle tone, head circumference, and weight gain, to determine whether there's a problem." Reasons that a child may be late to sit unsupported, Dr. Schiff says, could include primary muscle diseases or rare metabolic disorders.

Usually, however, the explanation is less alarming. Sam Sontag of Berkeley, CA, was late to sit and walk. His father, Jerry, remembers comparing Sam with his more active cousin, who was the same age: "I picked up his cousin, and he would spring his legs around. Sam didn't have that connection between his legs and torso."

The explanation for Sam's lack of physical prowess? At birth, his height and weight were in the 25th percentile, while his head size was in the 70th percentile, so it took a lot of muscle development before Sam could successfully control his head. And Sam's build is not that of a wiry athlete. Even years later, when Sontag watched Sam and a playmate climb stairs, he noticed that while Sam was confident, "it was more work for him to flex his hips, and he couldn't run up the stairs quickly like his peers."

How to Help Sit behind Baby and support him by holding his hips and thighs, or make a game out of pulling him by the hands from his back up into a sitting position. You can also sit him on your lap looking out, or position him on a low table looking at you. Once your baby is sitting pretty, though, don't leave him on his own propped up by pillows, since he could still fall over.

Bangs Two Objects Together
6 to 10 months

Combination of Grasping and Bringing Hands Together

Some developmental experts don't consider this a milestone, but others find it particularly useful because it's so clear  -- if Baby's banging objects together, you'll know it. "There is a wide period of time during which a child may demonstrate this ability," says Dr. Murphy, "but you certainly hear about it when they do."

How to Help Get your little percussionist started by giving her a couple of plastic or wooden blocks that are easy to hold. Small pot lids are great  -- if you can stand the racket.

Creeps, Crawls, or Elephant-Walks
6 to 12 months

Coordination of Arm and Leg Muscles

Babies may skip one  -- or even all  -- of these forms of locomotion, and if they do, don't worry. Most doctors no longer believe that a lack of crawling is associated with dyslexia or other perceptual problems. Some children simply acquire strength in their shoulders, legs, and arms simultaneously rather than developing upper-body strength first, and so they skip straight to cruising (walking with support) and walking.

In rare cases, there's cause for concern if Baby only scoots about in a sitting position. For a very small percentage of such babies, particularly preemies, scooting may indicate cerebral palsy. But it's unlikely that cerebral palsy would have remained undiagnosed in a baby this age.

In most cases, lack of crawling expertise just means Baby would rather be upright. "Humans were not designed to creep or crawl; we were designed to walk," says Kopp. Jennifer Wooley of Endwell, NY, didn't crawl until she was 11 months old, and three days later she stood up and walked. Her mother, Mary Jean, theorizes that Jennifer was a late walker because she had insufficient upper-body strength: "She was a very petite child," she says.

How to Help To make crawling more comfortable, especially in an uncarpeted house, protect Baby's knees with thick, soft pants or elasticized knee pads.

Pulls Up to a Standing Position
7 to 13 months

Muscles Around Critical Joints Are Able to Lock Into Place

Before a baby can pull himself up to a standing position, he needs to develop adequate coordination, a sense of balance, and sufficient muscle strength in his legs and arms.

How to Help Hold your baby standing on your lap so that he can flex his knees. If you keep him barefoot in the house, he'll get a better feel for the floor and become more confident. If it's cold, dress him in socks with nonskid bottoms. Thick carpeting may throw Baby off balance, causing him to trip, so have him practice on a bare floor instead.

Also, don't underestimate the positive power of peer pressure. Seeing other children perform a task may spark your baby's interest in it too. Once a baby can stand up while holding onto the furniture, he'll soon start cruising. To encourage his newfound mobility, provide him with many stable handholds, such as stools, ottomans, and low tables without sharp corners.

Uses Index Finger to Point
8 to 14 months Differentiation of Index Finger

Once Baby learns to point, it's hard to get him to stop. But since it's a more pleasant way for him to express himself than screaming, forget your manners for now. "Pointing is a great way for babies to learn that their hands can be excellent tools of communication," says Kopp.

How to Help By responding enthusiastically when Baby points to toys, you'll encourage him to practice this motor skill. Your reaction lets him know that pointing gets results.

Walks Without Support
8 to 17 months

Development of Balance

Walking early may mean that a child has a curious personality and an eagerness to push the boundaries, or that his parents have been supportive of his attempts. "The level of parental protectiveness plays a role in either motivating or restricting a child's explorations," says Jere Gallagher, Ph.D., an associate professor of motor development at the University of Pittsburgh. Some small adventurers may fall more often than cautious babies, but they're unlikely to be seriously injured, says Gallagher, who adds that particularly heavy babies may walk later than their peers.

Willy Meyer of San Francisco didn't walk until 16 months. His mother, Julie Stevenson, decided that when Willy reached 17 months, she would consult a specialist. But one morning Willy walked across the living room without a wobble, and soon he was running. Stevenson thinks this was due to Willy's personality. "Willy sits and watches things and takes them all in before he does them."

How to Help A time-tested strategy to encourage your baby to walk: Hold out your arms and coax him to come to you. A push toy can provide some support, or you can try handing your baby a toy while he is standing, which might distract him enough to take a step. Another motivator: Move your furniture farther apart to make it harder for him to cruise.

Builds a Tower
10 to 18 months

Hand-Eye Coordination and Spatial Awareness

Stacking blocks is a big step. "It's the first time a child demonstrates the idea of one object being on top of another," says Dr. Murphy. But, she cautions, this milestone is achieved as much from desire as from development; some toddlers will sit for hours stacking blocks and knocking them down, while others just aren't interested.

Because a child's individual temperament plays such a large role in determining when he reaches this milestone, pediatricians allow a lot of time to pass before becoming concerned, and they also take into account the child's physical prowess. "Some babies just aren't very coordinated," says Kopp, "and this is not such a big deal."

How to Help Old-fashioned stacking cups, alphabet blocks, or even a selection of plastic storage containers make it fun for Baby to practice this skill.

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