Development FAQ: 0-6 months – Learning

My son of 3.5 mths seems unable to hold a toy in his hand yet. Should I be concerned?

Matthew, who is three and a half months old, seems unable to hold anything in his hands yet. He has plenty of rattles and toys, but drops them soon after we have put them into his hand. Nor does he look for a toy once it has fallen to the floor. Is this normal? When will he be able to play with toys by himself?

At birth, Matthew had an innate grasping reflex. You will probably recall how he held on to your little finger with an intense grip. At that stage, his hands remained curled into fists for most of the time, unless you stroked them to open his fingers. He was able to grasp an object, but was not developed enough to realise he was doing so. It was just the stimulation of something in his hand that caused him to hold on.

It takes almost a year for a baby to develop enough co-ordination between his hand and eye to see a toy, pick it up and hold it. Learning to grab and grasp are the first stages in this complex sequence. Once a baby has learned to grasp and hold a toy, he will then learn how to play with it. Eventually he will use this same skill to hold a spoon and feed himself, or hold a pencil to draw.

Let Matthew spend plenty of time on the floor under a floor gym. You could enhance one you already have by adding spirals of sparkly paper, or ribbons attached securely to small bells. This will encourage him firstly to “bat” at the toys and then, as his hand to eye co-ordination develops, to reach for them.

Alternatively, hold up a brightly coloured toy and encourage Matthew to grab for it. By four months he will begin to reach out for something when encouraged, but don’t let him become frustrated by holding it too far away – the object is to let him reach it and hold on to it. Between four and eight months, he will get better at grasping and holding larger objects, such as rattles and bricks.

Smaller objects need finger dexterity, which comes later. First of all he will ” rake” an object towards him on a flat surface. By five months he will be able to hold on better to objects he has grasped and begin to look for them when dropped. At his present age, however, Matthew forgets about an item as soon as it is out of sight. You can, however, work on this by asking, “where’s the car?” and looking down at the toy. Playing peek-a-boo behind a scarf will also help him to understand that things are still there, even if he can’t see them. By six months, Matthew will be on the way to using both hands to play with his toys.

Enjoy encouraging Matthew in the ways suggested, but remember, as with all stages of development, every baby is different and cannot be rushed.