Your baby and handwriting

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Handwriting, pencil grip and fine motor skills are some of the most common reasons for referral to occupational therapy intervention in children preparing for formal school. You can prevent this problem by following simple and easy steps from your child’s baby years.

There are two types of motor skills: fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills generally refer to actions performed by the fingers, wrists, hands, lips, tongue and toes. It includes pencil grip, cutting, manipulating small objects, buttoning, tasting, grasping. Children may have difficulty with these because of a specific problem such as sensory processing disorder or a naturally slower progression of development. Most of the skills mentioned, are expected of an older pre-school child, so why be concerned about it while your child is a baby?

You can have a look at the Hierarchy provided below. The fine motor skills develop in a predictable pattern as from baby years. The young baby, of 2 – 3 months old, bats at objects, then progresses to grasp, to release, to transfer and to manipulate objects. Of course the mouth is included in most of these explorations which is important for the development of lip and tongue movements.

You can ensure that the foundational skills are well-developed in your baby. The easiest way to encourage effective eye movements, head control (strong neck muscles), shoulder control and hip and trunk stability is to use tummy time as often as possible.

  • Tummy time encourages the child to use the important neck muscles to lift the head.

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  • As the baby wants to see more of the environment the baby uses the arms to push the head to a higher position. This encourages weight bearing on the hands which encourages strong shoulder muscles to support the arms and the development of a mature pencil grip.

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  • When the baby reaches to objects and toys in this position, rotation of the trunk is encouraged which strengthens the trunk muscles and prepare the baby for rolling, sitting and eventually for an effective, upright posture. An upright posture is essential to support the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers when writing.

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Once babies can sit independently they are using the hands to reach for objects, to manipulate objects, to mouth objects, to grasp, to release, to throw, and to transfer objects form one hand to the other. By reaching for objects they also start to cross the midline of the body. All of these actions prepare the baby for the complex tasks of fine motor skills, and to use the two hands in a coordinated way.

Activities such as cutting, using a knife and fork, buttoning, and many more rely on the ability to use the two hands in a coordinated way.

You might watch your baby on the floor, trying to keep the head up, trying to move, trying to reach for objects and you might experience a strong feeling to help. However, reconsider and provide the opportunity for a little “work out” before you step in to “help”! Keep the important skills which are developing in mind and enjoy the journey of growing and developing more skills with your child as if the baby is an athlete in training. Of course, sitting in a stroller or car chair will not develop many of the above mentioned skills.

The pre-crawl stage can be very challenging as the baby wants to move and is frustrated. At this stage they are often not interested in manipulating objects for long periods of time as their body is getting ready to move. This urge is strong and necessary for motivation to get going and to crawl. To put baby in a walker doesn’t encourage crawling. Crawling is important as the left and right side of the body have to move in coordination, laying the foundation of many other skills, including the development of a dominant side.

You can put your baby on the tummy on a blanket on the floor in your house and pull him through the house on all the uncarpeted floors. The baby has to hold on, strengthening hand, arm and shoulder muscles. This will give the baby the enjoyment of movement for a short period of time and will strengthen the muscles needed for crawling.

To encourage the development of a mature pencil grip, the baby has to develop other grips. These are:

  1. Before the baby holds a pencil or crayon, the palmar grip is the favourite. The baby grasps an object with the hand and all the fingers, as you would do when you hold a tennis ball in your hand, closing all your fingers around the ball.
  2. The cylinder or fisted grip is usually the first one used to hold a pen or crayon. The thumb is on one side of the pencil and the other four fingers around the pencil from the other side.
  3. At about 2 – 3 years these two grips develops into different grips which will not be discussed in this article – all are one or other variation of a clumsy mature grip.

The important thing to remember when you want to encourage the development of your baby’s hand writing skills in later years is tummy time and the opportunity to manipulate many different objects.

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Marga Grey is the author of Sensible Stimulation. She is an occupational therapist who practised in South Africa for almost 30 years, working mainly with children and their families. She presented many workshops to parents, teachers and therapists and through her work realised the importance of the first three years as a foundation for development. This was also her field of study for a Master’s Degree from Wits University. She currently lives in Queensland, Australia where she works in a multi-disciplinary private practice, providing therapy to many children from 0 – 18 years. She is also the developer of CoordiKids, online programs to encourage the optimal development of children. For more information from marga Grey go to her website or email her at info@sensibleparenting.com.au