3 COMPONENTS OF MOTOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT
At 7 months Madison demonstrates excellent balance, coordination, and proprioception. These are three important components of motor skill development in babies. In the above photo Madison is playing with the rattle while securely balanced on her right elbow. Her left big toe is carefully anchored to the floor for a bit of extra stability, but often she lifts that leg up into the air while still balancing and shaking the rattle. She discovered this position on her own just before turning 6-months-old, and quite awhile after mastering the skill of rolling.
PROPRIOCEPTION FACILITATES LEARNING BALANCE
Proprioception is the ability to feel ones body parts individually, in relationship to one another, and in orientation to the environment. Balance improves when baby clearly feel all of her body parts in relation to one another. In the above photo proprioception allows Madison to feel that when she puts her big toe on the floor the rest of her body is more stable. It also gives her a very clear feeling of her elbow and how her elbow supports her shoulder, ribcage, and entire torso. Learning to feel and to use the elbow is an important micro-skill embedded in many motor milestones: lifting the head, rolling, and belly crawling.
COORDINATION OF BABY BALANCE
To find stability in this position, Madison needs to organize the placement of her elbow and big toe as she rolls onto her side. Once she has achieved this, she is free to play with the rattle. These activities happen in a quick moment. In one minute she is on the floor on her belly or her back and then she rolls to her side, props herself up on her elbow, and shakes her rattle. In just a fraction of a minute she manages to organize all of her body parts so she is stable and can enjoy playing with her toy. This is coordination–successfully moving and arranging her body parts so she can do what she wants to do or get what she wants to get. In this photo, her goal is to play with the rattle in a position she enjoys: balancing on her side. Coordination is an important part of the skill of balance.
ROCHEL LEARNS THE “Z”-SIT POSITION
Rochel has been rolling and sitting for quite awhile now. When placed in the sitting position she sits like a queen with such beautiful posture! A few weeks ago, we created a post with photos of Rochel showing her outstanding alignment in the sitting position. What was the next skill for her to learn? The ability to transition herself from lying to sitting, and the reverse, from sitting to lying, is the next essential motor milestone for Rochel. The key ingredient in this skill development is the side-sitting position.
We previously examined the four different arrangements of the legs in the sitting position. When sitting with the legs crossed, the body is stabilized allowing better use of the arms. In the side-sit position, also known as the “Z”-sit because the legs make the shape of a letter “Z,” she is mobilized. This is because she is more capable of shifting her weight forward toward the ground. Baby is able to shift her weight far enough forward so she can bring her arm, elbow, and torso down onto the ground. From this position she simply rolls onto her back! She moves from a stable crossed-leg position through the “Z”-sit to come down onto her back. She can also reverse herself by rolling until she comes onto her side, then she moves one leg backward as she pushes herself up to sit in the “Z.” Now her arms are free again! It is also an easy position to pass through as she is turning to see what is happening on one side of her. It is a quick and efficient position to use to get where she wants to go.
Through showing Rochel how to sit in the crossed-leg and butterfly positions, it was easier to introduce the “Z”-sit. By first working with the positions of the legs that were easier for her, we could then introduce the more challenging position. In less than a week Rochel was side-sitting often! By one week after her lesson she figured out how to use the side-sit to roll onto her back. With the mastery of this skill Rochel is more independent and confident that she can go where she wants!
BABY SITTING: A POSITION OR A MOVEMENT ?
Ella’s mother expressed concern: “She is still not sitting up.” Ella was about six months old at the time. I asked the mother, “Is she rolling?” She replied, “She can roll from her belly to her back, but not from her back to her belly.” “Well,” I said,” that needs to happen before she can sit.” Sitting is a position that results from the movement skill of rolling. Rolling usually begins on the back and ends in one of several positions: lying on the back, lying on the belly, or sitting. Sitting is the most challenging of these three options because it involves the use of an arm to push against the floor to lift the torso up off of the ground. This makes it more of an advanced skill compared with rolling onto the belly or back. However, many times we see a parent propping the baby into the sitting position, and mommy puts her hand an inch behind baby’s back so that when baby losses balance, mommy will catch her. This shows that baby is not really ready to sit yet. When baby learns to sit up by rolling and then coming into the sitting position, baby has all of the strength and balance needed to stay in this position. Also, baby is not dependent. Baby got herself into the sitting position and she can get herself out of it, too, by reversing the movements. She leans onto one forearm, puts her head down, and rolls onto her back or belly.
ROLLING TO SIT AND BABY INDEPENDENCE
There is no question that the position of sitting demands balance and some muscle strength. However, we want to develop the optimal skill in baby’s movement along with a sense of independence. Have you seen a baby sitting, flapping her arms and crying for her mother to pick her up because she does not know how to get herself out of this position? She feels trapped and frustrated. We would like baby to be able to move herself in and out of the sitting position. Of course, this reminds me of Aya…when I arrived to give her a lesson, her father greeted me at the door with the baby video monitor in hand. He invited me in and said she was upstairs. Usually she was upstairs just waking from a nap when I arrived, so I asked if she was sleeping. He proudly thrust the video monitor toward me and said, “Not since you taught her how to sit up!” There she was, sitting up in her crib, having a great time with what she had done all on her own.
A LESSON FROM A WIDE-EYED DOE
Have you ever seen the eyes of a deer, while standing completely still, dart quickly to one side before dashing off to safety? The deer freezes when a threatening sound is heard, then her eyes alone look to the direction in which she will move BEFORE moving. Her head and body quickly turns and she leaps in that direction. We live in a culture where our eyes become rather locked into position from staring straight ahead for hours each day while working on a computer, driving, and watching TV. It is no surprise then that it is not common knowledge that much of movement originates with the movement of our eyes. How does the development of the infant’s eyes relate to learning movement skills?
EYE DEVELOPMENT IN BABIES BY AGE 6 MONTHS
The development of sight begins with the fetal development of the eyes and continues to develop with the part of the brain called the visual cortex. Most visual abilities are present by age 6 months and finely tuned by one year. These abilities are depth perception, color vision, fine acuity, and eye movements such as blinking and tracking. Vision continues to adapt and change quite a bit until the age of two years and less so until the age of nine years old. Sight is an extremely complicated ability, and the brain allocates more of its territory to vision than to all the other senses combined. This tells us that our eyesight is both quite a complicated function is extremely important.
BABIES, INTENTION AND MOVEMENT
Once the baby has developed the visual skills of focusing on an object and tracking it, you will observe her want a favorite toy and reach for it. Her movement is motivated by her intention…by what she WANTS. Since reaching is a skill developed quite early, babies quickly learn to reach when they see something they want. For baby to learn movement skills, involve her sight in a way that evokes her desire to get a fun object. For example, if she is lying on her back, hold the toy in front of her face so she can focus on it, and when you see that she would like to play with it you move it slowly to one side an set it on the floor near her. Occasionally shake it to make its familiar sound, reminding her it is near. Observe how first her eyes move to the side, her head then turns toward the toy, and she tries to reach for it. Maybe, eventually, she finds herself rolling onto her stomach to get it! Create her intention and she will organize her movement to try and get what she wants! Contrast this experience with a baby lying on a mat with toys dangling overhead: she is quite content to play with them. Why should she roll to the side? After all, her entertainment is right in from of her face.
Let’s examine the skill of reaching. Hold a favorite rattle in front of baby, shake it to engage her curiosity and then hold it a bit away from her so she will reach to grasp it. And, sometimes, hold it a bit to the right and observe how she organizes her movement to get it. She follows it with her eyes, then turns her head, then maybe she turns her ribs and spine a bit to be able to reach to the side and grasp the rattle. It won’t be long before baby’s reaching for the stars!
ROCHEL LEARNS TO CONNECT THE DOTS
Each movement featured in our stellar caterpillar’s skills list teaches baby something important, such as strength or stretch, and prepares her to learn a new and more complex skill. Rochel learned to kick her legs, feel comfortable in tummy time, and lift her head high off of the mat. Her mother also practiced the lesson on the geometry of the ribcage, rolling her on her side from time to time so she could feel her ribs. On her own, Rochel has already figured out how to roll from her belly onto her back. In this video we show Rochel how to roll from her back to her belly by connecting the skills of kicking the legs, rolling on the ribcage, tummy time, and lifting the head. This is why it is so important for baby to learn each of these motor skills….they lead to the more complex skill of rolling.
By holding her left leg just above the knee joint I can more easily connect to her pelvis, which is one of the heaviest bones in the body. By holding her left arm just above the elbow I feel the connection to her ribcage. Gently guiding her leg and arm steers the center of her body, the torso and ribcage. A little assistance with the final turn of the pelvis shifts her weight all the way onto her belly and she lifts her head up. Rochel has learned to put her head down as we guide her to roll onto her back. The slow pace of this movement is essential for her brain to learn the sequence. Then she may discover it on her own later. By repeating this sequence with her for a few minutes every day, she will slowly find it on her own. Roll Rochel, Roll!
STRONG LEGS FOR ROLLING, CRAWLING, AND WALKING
Ivan learns “Left-Right-Left-Right-Left-Right!”
Ivan received his second lesson at six weeks. Both parents enjoy watching his lessons and were present that day. He was laying on the floor listening to the bell inside the rattle and kicking his left leg…left-left-left-left-right. They said he was kicking quite a bit, but favoring his left leg. Ivan continued to play with a different rattle, delighted at the chop-chop sounds of the wood blocks. When the rattle dropped out of his hand, he would start kicking his legs, or at least the left one. Left, left, left, right, left, left left, right! “How do we get Ivan to kick his right leg as much as the left one,” I could hear his parents thinking. Most people think the obvious solution is to strap a little weight on his tiny right leg or to hold the left one still so he could only move the right one. Isn’t that the solution – to work on strengthening the weaker leg? Let’s see what happened with Ivan during his lesson.
We started by working with his left leg – yes, the one that was stronger and more active. We started by gently squeezing the leg so he could feel it very clearly. Then we began bending and straightening his leg. I was talking to him the entire time: “Ivan this is your left leg, we are bending your left leg, and now straightening your left leg.” Ivan’s face was very focused, it was clear that he was paying attention to the sensation of his leg moving and the pressure from the squeezing. His proprioception of the active leg was improving. I continued for a couple of minutes with only that leg. Once the more active leg is clearer in his own body image or feeling, then he can improve the kicking of the less active right leg. As a reward, I let Ivan rest and shake the rattle for a minute or two. I began working with the right leg next, repeating the squeezing, bending, and stretching. These slow movements focused Ivan’s attention on this leg. And, then, all of a sudden he began to kick the right leg much stronger than before…and then he was kicking right, left, right, left, left, right, left, right, etc. He was now using his right leg more often and with more strength. His father noticed immediately, “Look, he’s kicking his right leg more!” So, we see that Ivan’s less active leg improved by working first on the more active leg. By firmly squeezing the leg that was easier to move, Ivan learned to feel his leg much more clearly (proprioception), which helped him to improve his motor skill of kicking. All the hours spent kicking develop strong leg muscles, the first step toward achieving the motor milestones of rolling, crawling, and walking.