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How to Help Your Baby Develop Motor & Cognitive Skills

by Cara Batema, studioD

Measuring your baby’s height and weight is just one aspect of evaluating his growth – your baby also develops movement and thinking skills, both of which are integral to his overall health and development. According to pediatric occupational therapist Rhoda Erhardt, the way your baby moves or gestures is directly linked to his thoughts and cognitive development. Promote development of motor and cognitive skills in your baby through play and goal-oriented activities.

Motor Skills

Look at a developmental milestones chart to determine what skills are appropriate and expected for your baby’s age. These charts provide general guidelines for the skills most children acquire by a certain age, but your baby might be ahead or behind the curve. If he's a bit behind, don't worry. But if he doesn't shortly catch up, contact your pediatrician.

Choose which skill you want to focus on and play games or provide toys to aid your baby’s learning. For example, a baby at 4 months typically can hold a toy, shake it, and bring his hands to his mouth. Give your baby a brightly-colored toy that makes noise, such as a mini maraca. The noise-making element of these toys encourages your child to shake the instrument. Ensure the toy is sturdy enough that it won't break and release small pieces, creating a choking hazard. Also be sure that all toys that go into your baby's mouth - in other words all toys he plays with - are suitable for his age and child-safe.

Use push toys or put your baby’s favorite toy just out of reach to encourage gross motor movements, such as using his legs for crawling or walking. This game is also useful for cognitive development, and most babies around 6 months old get curious about objects and try to get things that are out of reach.

Encourage tummy time every day. Playing on his tummy allows your baby to strengthen back, shoulder, arm and hand muscles. Never leave an infant alone on his tummy. To help prevent SIDs, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends back sleeping until the baby is able to roll over on his own and back, usually around 6 months.

Give your baby finger foods such as cereal when it is age-appropriate, typically around 7 to 9 months of age. Your baby can practice his pincer grasp, a fine motor skill that involves picking up an object between her thumb and index finger. Only give him foods that he is developmentally ready to digest. And never give a baby a food he could choke on, including the foods the American Academy of Pediatrics says never to give any child under 4 years old: whole grapes, chunks of cheese or meat, hard candy, popcorn, hot dogs, peanut butter, raw vegetables or seeds and nuts.

Let your baby play with blocks, stacking rings, balls or puzzles. These toys encourage use of fine motor muscles in the fingers, hands and arms.

Cognitive Skills

Play peek-a-boo with your baby. At an early age, your baby might just pay close attention to you, but by around 9 months, your baby might try to pull your hands away from your face to find you. By 9 months, your baby will likely have the cognitive development to look for things you hide.

Let your baby play on a blanket with different colors or textures, or try putting him on a brown paper bag you lay flat on the floor. Your baby will explore the colors, the way the fabric feels or the sounds the paper makes, all of which stimulates your baby’s senses.

Play cause-and-effect games, such as building a block tower and knocking it down. This activity lets your baby realize his effect on his surroundings.

Give your baby a box of toys with various shapes, colors and textures. Not only will he like to explore the various objects with her senses, he will also explore different ways to play with multiple toys, such as banging them together or pulling things out of a container and putting them back in. This is especially fun for babies around 1 year old.

Items you will need
  •  Developmental milestones chart
  •  Shaker or maraca
  •  Blocks
  •  Balls


  • You are your baby’s favorite toy, so don’t be shy about playing with your baby. Also don’t be afraid to play games multiple times -- children thrive on repetition.
  • Don’t get too caught up in developmental milestone charts -- they are guidelines rather than hard rules. If your child misses a milestone, talk to the pediatrician at your child’s next doctor visit.


  • Don't ever leave toys, blankets or any other item in the crib with a newborn because at this young age a baby can suffocate on soft, cushy things.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

Photo Credits

  • James Woodson/Digital Vision/Getty Images