Wondering what to do to help a baby’s physical development? A baby uses gross motor skills when they use their large muscle groups. Think arms, legs, and trunk. So, how can parents support a baby’s gross motor development? This post covers several gross motor “activities” that caregivers and infants can enjoy at home.
Parents need not feel any pressure to go through a checklist of activities, however. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the best thing for an infant’s development is time and space to move, with a loving caregiver nearby. The floor is great! A blanket outside is perfect. With enough time, babies develop at their own pace.
That being said, if you’re looking for a few small ways to nudge your child or to simply vary some of their free time, this post is for you. As always, if you have concerns about your child’s development, please talk with their pediatrician to see if referrals or more evaluation are needed. A pediatric occupational therapist or pediatric physical therapist can be a wealth of knowledge and make tailored suggestions for your family.
What follows are very general ideas based on typical development for infants under age 12 months.
Starting at Newborn Age
At the youngest ages, these “activities” are simply skills and movements that babies learn. So, no special planning is needed. I point out these skills and activities partly so parents can appreciate all the learning their baby is doing. And, sometimes it’s helpful to think about how we position babies in order to allow them to develop those larger muscles. (For information on newborn movements and reflexes, see this post).
1. Lift head in tummy time
There are many movements when a young infant is placed on their belly. One of the most exciting is when they lift their head off the floor or parent’s chest. This uses trunk and neck muscles. Depending on where their arms are, they may even try to push up with their arms are as well.
A parent can set the stage for this by reclining on their own back with the baby resting on the parent’s chest. The baby’s belly is against the parent’s chest. The baby may lay with their head turned, one cheek against their parent’s chest. When the baby tries to lift their head? Voila! This is the chance for a parent to gently engage with a smile, eye contact if possible, or a coo of support. “You did it!”
2. Kick legs when on their back
Tummy time is a great activity for developing neck muscles. Babies can also spend some waking time on their backs. I suggest at least some of this time be with the baby’s legs and arms free to move. (Swaddling isn’t always needed). When they’re on their back, they may start to wiggle and kick the air. This engages not only their leg muscles, but also the trunk and core muscles. (To experience this yourself, try laying on your back and doing the same movements).
No special equipment is needed for this either, especially at the very young ages. Parents can lay near their baby or sit close enough that their baby can see their parent’s face. They can touch the baby’s feet as they kick. Or, if the baby is outside in the shade, they may still kick and wiggle as they appreciate a light breeze or watching light move through leaves.
Older infants still enjoy kicking on their backs. The kicks become more targeted and precise. So, holding a hand or a stuffed toy up for them to kick at may add a little variety. Parents can also add rhymes or songs to the physical activity.
3. Arms supporting during tummy time
After a few weeks, babies get their arms under their chest during tummy time. Then, with considerable and admirable effort, they start to push up just a little. They’re still using their neck and core muscles, but now the arms and shoulders help out even more. Their head may bob. They may hold this position for only a few seconds. It’s a start! So, anything to engage babies like this for a few seconds is welcome.
Looking at a book, making eye contact, or cheering them on are all perfect motivators to get them to lift their head a little more, using those arms to do so.
5. “Sensory” play in tummy time
When a baby is in tummy time, especially when they’re comfortable for more than a few seconds at a time, they can also play with their hands. We usually refer to hand and finger movements as fine motor skills, but that’s not the only aim of such activities. The idea here is to give them a reason to stay in tummy time a little longer.
This is not for every baby. It’s absolutely not a requirement. If a baby needs to spend more time on their belly, then consider adding other activities. (A pediatrician or physical therapist can help guide a family, letting them know if the baby needs more tummy time).
If a baby is on a blanket outside, they can tickle the grass with their fingers.
If no grass is available, a piece of newspaper or wrapping paper can be fun to crinkle or swat around.
A zip top plastic bag filled with a piece of paper and a squirt of paint can lead to some tummy time artwork.
Even blankets or fabrics of different textures can be something for little hands to explore for a few minutes.
In other words, there’s not need for elaborate pre-made sensory bags or highly structured play at this age. The small movements that target a baby’s fine motor skills also allow them to be in positions that target the large muscles as well.
6. Encourage head-turning
Starting at about age 2 months, babies may start to track movements with their eyes from one side to another. This is important for their developing eyesight! (Read here about how doing this outdoors is even better for developing eyes). It’s also an opportunity for them to move more. Simply talking to them as they lay on their back and you move around the room can lead to some head movement. They’ll “follow” you and your voice. This post has tips for chatting with young babies.
Even though a family member’s face is usually the most interesting thing to young infants, parents can also use small toys for their babies to track.
Beyond the newborn age: Older infants and gross motor activities (starting at approximately 4-8 months)
Sometime between 4-7 months, many babies start to roll, grab, and kick more intentionally. Parents can take advantage of these new skills with these activities.
7. Rolling over
Give babies a reason to roll. I repeat that not every baby needs a designed activity, as some will roll for the sheer joy and challenge of it. That doesn’t mean parents can’t join in on the fun. The main ingredient needed for rolling is space. If a baby uses rolling as a way of getting from point A to point B, even better. It’s just a matter of having a child-proofed area safe for this activity.
8. Reaching for objects
Starting at around 4 months for many babies, they’ll try to reach and grab objects. While this is good for both hand-eye coordination and eyesight, it’s also great for moving those bigger muscles in the arms. Depending on a baby’s position, they’ll use different techniques to reach for objects.
Parents can offer a small toy or their own hands as a simple way to get their baby to reach. This also pairs well with songs, like pat-a-cake. Grabbing and clutching may be fine motor activities, but using the arm and back to reach is a perfect example of large muscle movement.
I refer to scooting as the various movements babies use that aren’t as refined as crawling. Their belly may still be on the floor. Maybe they sort of have one knee on the ground and swing the other leg. Maybe they’re partly sitting and scoot along that way. The point is that they’re trying to move their body across a big space.
Caregivers can position themselves in ways to motivate the baby to move towards them. Depending on the baby, there are small adjustments that can make it even more fun or challenging. The activities listed under crawling may apply here too.
10. Crawling over uneven surfaces
Many babies have more refined crawling by around age 9 months. The baby’s hands and knees are the main body parts in contact with the ground. They can look up to see where they are going and also look down at their hands if needed.
I never want to imply a baby might be bored with their usual activities. There’s always so much to learn. However, there are a few things parents can do when babies crawl.
They can offer an uneven surface so that babies get to make small adjustments with their muscles as they crawl. One easy thing to do is lay pillows on the floor. The baby may crawl around them or attempt to climb over them. Either way, it’s a chance to use some slightly different muscles.
11. Obstacle course
Some families like the idea of a mini baby “obstacle course.” Little kids might love this too. And, as long as there is no pressure or expectation for a baby to actually complete such an activity as planned, it can add a some variety as well. Maybe the baby can try crawling through a hula hoop. Maybe there’s some painter’s tape stuck to the floor for them to explore. (Obviously, everything with small things like painter’s tape needs to be explored under a parent’s watchful eye).
The good news here is that as along as a baby is safe, just about any time moving is good for their muscle development. At these ages, active play is learning.
12. Sitting on a parent’s knee
Sitting on a slightly wobbly surface like an adult’s knee or even a soft pillow is also an activity! By the time babies reach their first birthday, they may be getting into a seated position on their own. (Many babies can sit earlier, but may need some help to get there). This requires core strength. And, if they’re on a lap facing the parent (so their back is not supported by leaning against the adult), they need to use more strength to stay in that position.
Gross motor activities for older infants (starting at around 8-9 months)
After 9 months of age or so, babies are even more on the move! The gross motor activities (some also call them large motor skills or activities) at these ages include preparing babies for walking.
13. Pulling to stand
At around age 9 months, many babies try to pull on something (often a couch or crib rails) in order to stand up. This is the perfect chance for parents to make sure their baby has something to reach for and grab. They simply need a chance to reach, grab, and pull themselves into a standing position.
Parents’ legs are an option. A lower couch. Some toys are even designed for this. I think of a water table. Even though this might be for a slightly older age group, if it’s sturdy enough it can be a fun way to motivate an older infant to stand. Imagine all the splashing they can do as a reward!
In fact, any lower table is an opportunity. Raised garden beds are often a good height too (for better or worse!)
14. Throwing objects
Many one year-olds throw their food. It’s frustrating and normal.
How about giving them a chance to throw other things at other points during the day? If they’re able to fling peas, they can also throw balled up socks, pom poms, or soft balls. Let them delight in sending something soaring. And yes, picking it up or tossing it yourself adds to the fun.
This is also a great laundry time activity. Your little one can throw wash cloths, for example, as some chores get done. Maybe they can try throwing them into the laundry basket, emptying it, and filling it again.
Young children and babies love to be near their caregivers. So, finding ways for them to gain motor control while their parent goes about their everyday activities can be a win-win.
15. Dragging or tugging objects
Pulling something is typically more of a toddler skill. I mention here so that if parents notice their baby or toddler pulling something, they can notice all the skill and strength it requires. Or, they may choose to push something as they move. (Again, the laundry basket comes to mind). Either way, they’re using arms, legs, and trunk muscles. (See here for more toddler developmental milestones).
16. Cruising or walking with assistance
Once a baby can pull to stand, they may want to move even more. Parents may encourage their baby to “cruise” by placing themselves or a toy at the opposite end of a couch (for example). Once the baby pulls themselves up to see the seat of the couch, they can spot the toy and move themselves towards it.
This is also a great way for babies to explore outside (with close supervision). Cruising along small boulders, trees, bushes, or a bench are all wonderful activities.
It’s also worth remembering that simply walking while holding onto a parent is a beautiful gross motor activity as well.
If you have older kids and spend time at playgrounds, a lot of standard playground equipment works for infants to cruise along. Think steps, small low slides, etc.
17. Process art using large muscles
Okay, this activity may require a bit of preparation. That being said, it can also be fun if there’s a an older sibling or a wider age range. Find a way to create. One of my favorites, inspired by Instagram posts, has babies lay on their back and paint with their feet onto paper or cardboard that is angled vertically. This uses similar muscles as kicking on their back. If no paint, then shaving cream works as well.
Or, have a baby use finger paints on large butcher-type craft paper. They can crawl or smoosh their hands over the larger surface. The first time they do this, it may not be more than a delightful experience, rather than a work of art. That’s okay!
Summary: Infants can develop large muscle strength and gross motor skills with very simple activities.
If parents are aware of some typical developmental motor skills for infants, they can help encourage their babies to learn. Pairing these activities with things families do on a daily basis is a fun way to make sure babies keep moving and learning. A baby’s gross motor skills development does not have to be complicated.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.
This is for information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.