The ability to grasp and release enables babies to feed themselves, explore their surroundings, play, write, and take part in their self-care.
As newborns, babies are born with the grasping reflex – this is an involuntary grasping motion in response to touching their palm. However; it takes about a year for babies to develop the ability to pick up objects, hold them securely, and release them in a smooth, coordinated manner. Hand dominance becomes apparent between the ages of 1 to 3.
Birth to 4 months
For the first month of their lives, babies will keep their fists clenched a lot of the time. Soon after this, they begin to open and close them, attempting to grasp soft objects, but are unable to accurately grasp what they want. As their hand-eye coordination becomes more refined, their accuracy at touching and hitting toys improves. During the time between 2-3 months, babies will learn to reach towards an object with their hands closed.
4 to 5 months
At this stage, babies are able to crudely grasp larger objects, such as blocks, but mainly use the ulnar side of their palm and don’t involve their thumb. They are unable to pick up smaller items until they develop better finger dexterity. Around this time, babies learn to open their hand while reaching for a toy.5 to 6 months
Babies are now able to secure objects in the centre of their palm, however, they continue to not involve their thumb in the process. Even with smaller items, babies’ grasp is not yet developed to carry out more precise grasps than the palmar grasp.
6 to 7 months
At the age of 6-7 months, the thumb begins to oppose and is used to secure items in the radial aspect of the palm. Their accuracy when reaching for a toy improves around the age of 6 months.7 to 8 months
Babies start to develop a raking grasp, using the radial fingers to extend and then flex, bringing objects into the palm.
8 to 9 months
As thumb opposition continues to progress, the ulnar fingers flex to secure an object between the thumb, index finger and middle finger, developing the radial digital grasp. At this stage, babies also learn to adduct their thumbs, and are able to secure objects between that and their extended index finger, producing an inferior pincer grasp.10 to 12 months
Around this time, babies are able to fully oppose their thumbs and start to develop their full pincer grasp. This means they can secure an object between the pad of their thumb and pad of their index finger. Progressing from this, they develop the ability to secure small objects between the tips of the thumb and index finger. This is called a “neat pincer grasp”. Soon after 12 months of age, babies will develop coordinated timing of hand closure when reaching to pick up a toy.