Movement in babies - what's normal?
Updated: Jul 27
Every baby is unique and the timing of gross motor development varies from baby to baby. So what is normal and when should you seek help? Listed below are some of the common development stages during the first 12-18 months and the normal age range at which they occur.
Developing head control
At birth, your baby should be able to lift their head briefly and turn it to the side when placed on their tummy. It is normal for babies to have a ‘head lag’ at birth (their head will lag behind their body if it is not supported when you pick them up from laying on their back. By around 2-3 months of age, most babies are able to keep their head steady when being picked up from their back and lift their head to 90 degrees to look around when placed on their tummy. Giving your baby plenty of 'tummy time' helps to develop head control.
Rolling from tummy to back: babies often roll accidentally in the early months because their head is larger and heavier than their body. The momentum created by moving the head to the side causes the rest of the body to turn over. Between 4 – 6 months most babies learn to roll deliberately from tummy to back.
Rolling from back to tummy: after your baby has learned to play with their feet when lying on their back, they will learn to roll to their side and then over to their tummy. This usually happens between 5 – 7 months of age when they have developed enough strength in their stomach muscles to control the movement.
When babies first learn to sit, they prop on their hands to keep themselves upright. As their strength and balance develops, they no longer need to rely on their hands for support and begin to reach out for toys. Babies usually learn to sit upright and maintain their balance without support between 7-9 months of age.
Babies often first learn to commando crawl by pulling their body and legs along the floor with bent arms (around 7-8 months). As they develop strength in their arm and tummy muscles, this progresses to crawling on the hands and knees, usually between 8-11 months. Not all babies learn to crawl, and this is not necessarily a problem. Some babies prefer to bottom shuffle instead. Crawling helps to develop coordination, upper body and core strength, but babies who bottom shuffle can develop strength in these muscles through other activities. Some babies bottom shuffle because they have ‘hypotonia’, or low muscle tone. You can read more about hypotonia here.
Pulling to stand
Once your baby has been able to move around for a while, they will be ready to pull themselves to a standing position by holding onto furniture (often the coffee table, cot or couch). This usually happens around 10-11 months of age. Pulling to stand and 'cruising' (side stepping while holding on to furniture) helps to develop the balance and strength needed for independent walking.
Most babies learn to walk without holding onto something between 10 – 16 months of age, however babies can walk as late as 18 months of age without cause for concern.
When to seek help
You should consult a Paediatric Physiotherapist, Paediatrician, GP or Maternal Child Health Nurse if your baby is not able to:
Lift their head when placed on their tummy as a newborn, or keep their head fairly steady when held upright by 2-3 months of age
Roll over by 7 months of age
Sit by himself/herself by 9 months of age
Crawl or bottom shuffle by 11 months of age
Pull up to a standing position by 12 months of age
Walk by 18 months of age
When a baby is born prematurely, the 'corrected age' is taken into account when assessing motor development.
Why is it important to seek help?
If your baby has a delay in gross motor skills, the earlier this is identified, the sooner it can be addressed. Babies’ brains grow very rapidly during the first few years of life, so there is a huge window of opportunity to maximise development during this time. A paediatric physiotherapist can assess your child and teach you different ways to position your child for play to improve their gross motor skills.
Cech, D.J. & Martin, S. (2012). Functional movement development across the lifespan 3rd ed. Elsevier Saunders: USA.
Cronin, A & Mandich, M (2015). Human development and performance throughout the lifespan 2nd ed. Cengage Learning: Boston.
Larsen, P.D & Stensaas, S.S (2016) ‘University of Utah Neurological examination for paediatrics’ accessed 5.9.17 from http://library.med.utah.edu/pedineurologicexam/html/introduction.html
Bee, H (2000). The developing child 9th ed. Pearson Education: USA.