Gross motor skills (babies and toddlers)
Before babies are born, they spend their final few months in a very tight space, in a curled up position. When they are born, they then need to spend time adjusting to the freedom of being able to move, and the effect of gravity. As they move their arms and legs the movement will look uncontrolled and jerky to begin with.
Most of a baby’s day should be spent where they can explore and play on their tummy and their back. This way they will strengthen their muscles, discover their bodies, develop their response to sensations and reactions, and learn to move by themselves with your support for their safety. Long periods in buggies and car seats should be avoided.
Tummy time (Prone)
On their tummies, babies will develop their ability to hold their head up, and strengthen the muscles needed for sitting, rolling and crawling. Often babies don’t like this position as it is hard for them to lift their head initially, and they often can’t see you when flat on the floor.
If your baby can’t lift their head up when lying on their tummy by 4 months old speak to your Health Visitor and look at our self help resources
Being able to roll over is often a baby’s first experience of being able to move towards a toy by themselves. Babies usually learn to roll from their front to their back before they learn to roll from their back to their front. By giving your baby plenty of time throughout the day on their back and their tummy with toys around them they will start to try to move to get them…but put the toys too close to them and they wont need to move at all!
- To help your baby learn to roll over
If by 6 months your baby is not showing any signs of trying to roll and you have been trying these ideas, please contact your Health visitor and look at our self help resources
Babies enjoy sitting up to play with toys, and look at their world from a different view instead of being flat on the floor. Babies are often held sitting on parents and carers laps, and as they get older and stronger giving them less and less support when you are holding them will help them to develop their ability to do this by themselves.
But be careful! Babies don’t develop their ability to save themselves with their hands, when falling to the side when sitting (saving reactions) until after they have learnt to sit independently
Bumbo style seats don’t allow babies to sit by themselves or use their muscles to encourage independent sitting, or then develop their ability to move in and out of sitting they can only do this through practice with you. So limit the amount of time your baby is in a bumbo or high chair and instead let them practice to sit on the floor.
If your baby is not showing signs of being able to sit by 6 months and you have been trying these ideas, please contact your Health visitor
Moving from lying to sitting
You move your baby frequently throughout the day from lying to a sitting position every time you change their nappy, or pick them up from the floor. When a baby is able to move from lying to sitting by themselves, they will develop good muscle strength in their tummy, back and shoulder muscles, which they need to crawl and walk. As a baby develops their head control and sitting ability, they should start to join in with you, for example every nappy change you can practice.
Babies learn to sit up in 2 different ways
On their tummies (usually first) by pushing up through their arms and moving their legs to the side to sit on their bottom
On their backs by using mostly one arm to push through, and their tummy muscles to sit forwards.
A baby needs to be happy on their tummy and pushing themselves up on their hands and knees before they can start to crawl. Sometimes babies commando crawl on their elbows with their legs on the floor, before crawling.
Crawling is excellent for developing muscles and sometimes older children who never learnt to crawl continue to have some weakness in their muscles. Babies need a surface with grip to learn to crawl, such as carpet or a large rug, so they can push themselves without slipping. Sometimes babies who have laminate and wooden flooring at home tend to bottom shuffle instead of crawl which can delay walking. Once a baby has learnt to crawl, crawling up stairs is a good way of helping babies learn to push up on their feet to get into standing and walking (but always need close supervision for their safety)
If your baby isn’t showing signs of crawling by 10 months and you have been trying to help them, please contact your health visitor and see our self help resources. Remember they need to be strong enough to push up with their arms and legs when lying on their tummy to be able to crawl, so you may need to help them achieve this first
Moving into standing
Moving into standing requires babies to be able to sit, move into kneeling, and then pulling up into standing. Being able to complete this movement by themselves first is important for babies to be able to then walk. Allowing your baby to pull up on your fingers when sitting (without moving through kneeling) won’t help your baby to be able to complete the movement for themselves. Babies will need appropriate height tables / chairs to pull themselves up on, but be careful of those hard corners and edges on coffee tables.
Parents often feel the need to buy lots of equipment for a baby, however door bouncers and standing/ jumping baby gyms should be avoided or their use kept to very short periods as they do not help a baby to develop physically. Instead they actually encourage babies to stand on tip toe and arch their backs. Your baby may then find it difficult to learn to stand and be still and stand and walk with flat feet.
To help your baby learn to move from sitting into standing please see
If your baby is not showing signs of trying to stand or take weight through their feet by 12 months, and you have been practising these ideas please contact your Health Visitor
Is the last of the big milestones a baby will achieve, usually within their first 12-18 months, and a much anticipated day by parents. Babies will first learn to stand with support from furniture, cruise around the furniture, walk with push a long walkers, or hands held before taking their first steps. All of these stages are important for babies to master before they move to the next, and some babies take longer than others. There are other factors which influence a babies ability to walk too, like having laminate floor at home, or furniture which is far apart so a baby crawls between it instead of taking a step. Baby walkers allow babies to walk abnormally (often on tip toes), and do not strengthen the muscles needed for sitting, crawling or independent walking.
It is much more important to give a baby a safe space on the floor to roll, crawl and pull themselves up into standing.
If your baby is not showing signs of walking by 15 months please contact your health visitor
Physical Activity Guidelines (2019)
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer advises physical activity guidelines for babies less than 1 year:
Infants should be physically active several times every day in a variety of ways, including interactive floor-based activity, e.g. crawling.
For infants not yet mobile, this includes at least 30 minutes of tummy time spread throughout the day while awake (and other movements such as reaching and grasping, pushing and pulling themselves independently, or rolling over); more is better
NB: Tummy time may be unfamiliar to babies at first, but can be increased gradually, starting from a minute or two at a time, as the baby becomes used to it. Babies should not sleep on their tummies.
Babies feet are soft and pliable and if the wrong footwear is worn for prolonged periods of time it may cause damage and lead to problems later in life. Young children who are not yet walking do not usually need shoes, but you may wish to buy them soft shoes which help to protect the feet when crawling and keep your baby warm when you are outside.
For further advice, click this link.
From taking those first steps to learning to run, toddlers will perfect their walking, getting quicker and steadier as they fall less. They will start to try to learn to run and master steps and stairs, but have no awareness of danger so need you close by to keep them safe.
By the age of 2 years toddlers will be able to run and avoid obstacles in their way. They will climb on your sofa or chairs and be able to get down again, and walk up and down stairs with you or holding on to the rails. They will be starting to try to scoot themselves on a sit on toy without pedals. If your toddler didn’t start walking until between 18months to 2 years then it is likely these skills will be a little delayed too, don’t worry they will catch up!
At the age of 3, toddlers will be able to run at speed, jump, climb slides in the park, pedal a tricycle, kick and throw a ball and balance for a few seconds on either leg! Phew hope you can keep up!
For toddlers to be able to achieve all these amazing skills, they have to have opportunities to practice them regularly. Just like adults if we try to learn to do something new, we couldn’t do it without the practice either.
Your toddler will need space, and different places to explore and help them develop their physical skills such as running and jumping in the garden and park playing chasing games with you.
Other physical activities such as soft play, swimming pools and play equipment in the park provide great opportunities for toddlers to be active and to challenge and develop new skills.
Watching TV promotes a sedentary lifestyle and should be restricted to short periods.
Prolonged periods in car seats and push chairs should be avoided.
Non-urgent advice: To help your toddlers physical development
Starting with a toddlers scoot a long toy, ride on toys, progressing to trikes, scooters and bikes are all excellent for developing balance, strength.
Children love trampolines, bouncy castles and space hoppers, which are all great for developing strength, jumping, balance, and getting fit.
Kicking a ball by standing on one leg, walking along a balance beam in the park and playing stepping stones are all great ways to develop balance.
Friends and family
Children learn by watching and playing with others who are often older than them. Families taking part in activities together are really important in promoting a child’s development. Good opportunities for this include playing games with children in the garden or park.
Children often need to do something again and again to help them get it right. They might need encouragement if they are getting stuck or reassurance to come back and try again later. It is very tempting to take over and do something for them as it’s quicker, but this won’t help them to learn how to do it next time.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer advises:
- Toddlers (1-2 years) should spend at least 180 minutes (3 hours) per day in a variety of physical activities at any intensity, including active and outdoor play, spread throughout the day; more is better.
- Pre-schoolers (3-4 years) have the same recommendations as 1-2 years , but the 180 minutes should include at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (meaning they should be getting out of breath and maybe hot and sweaty)
Page last reviewed: 31 August, 2021