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Movement: Birth to 3 Months

For the first week or two, your baby’s movements will be very jerky. Her chin may quiver and her hands may tremble. She’ll startle easily when moved suddenly or when she hears a loud sound, and the startling may lead to crying. If she appears overly sensitive to stimulation, she may be comforted if you hold her close to your body or swaddle her tightly in a blanket. There are even special blankets for swaddling small babies who are particularly difficult to console. But by the end of the first month, as her nervous system matures and her muscle control improves, these shakes and quivers will give way to much smoother arm and leg movements that look almost as if she’s riding a bicycle. Lay her on her stomach now and she will make crawling motions with her legs and may even push up on her arms.

Your baby’s neck muscles also will develop rapidly, giving her much more control over her head movements by the end of this month. Lying on her stomach, she may lift her head and turn it from one side to the other. However, she won’t be able to hold her head independently until about three months, so make sure you support it whenever you’re holding her.

Your baby’s hands, a source of endless fascination throughout much of this first year, will probably catch her eyes during these weeks. Her finger movements are limited, since her hands are likely to be clenched in tight fists most of the time. But she can flex her arms and bring her hands to her mouth and into her line of vision. While she can’t control her hands precisely, she’ll watch them closely as long as they’re in view.

Many of your baby’s movements still will be reflexive at the beginning of this period. For example, he may assume a “fencing” position every time his head turns and throw out his arms if he hears a loud noise or feels that he’s falling. But as we’ve mentioned, most of these common newborn reflexes will begin to fade by the second or third month. He may temporarily seem less active after the reflexes have diminished, but now his movements, however subtle, are intentional ones and will build steadily toward mature activity.

One of the most important developments of these early months will be your baby’s increasing neck strength. Try placing him on his stomach and see what happens. Before two months, he’ll struggle to raise his head to look around. Even if he succeeds for only a second or two, that will allow him to turn for a slightly different view of the world. These momentary exercises also will strengthen the muscles in the back of his neck so that, by sometime around his four-month birthday, he’ll be able to hold up his head and chest as he supports himself on his elbows. This is a major accomplishment, giving him the freedom and control to look all around at will, instead of just staring at his crib or the mobile directly overhead.

For you, it’s also a welcome development because you no longer have to support his head quite so much when carrying him (although sudden movements or force will still require some head support). If you use a front or back carrier, he’ll now be able to hold his own head up and look around as you walk.

A baby’s control over the front neck muscles and abdominal muscles develops more gradually, so it will take a little longer for your baby to be able to raise his head when lying on his back. At one month, if you gently pull your baby by the arms to a sitting position, his head will flop backward; by four months, however, he’ll be able to hold it steady in all directions.

Your child’s legs also will become stronger and more active. During the second month, they’ll start to straighten from their inward-curving newborn position. Although his kicks will remain mostly reflexive for some time, they’ll quickly gather force, and by the end of the third month, he might even kick himself over from front to back. (He probably won’t roll from back to front until he’s about six months old.) Since you cannot predict when he’ll begin rolling over, you’ll need to be especially careful and pay close attention whenever he’s on the changing table or any other surface above floor level.

Another newborn reflex—the stepping reflex—will allow him to take steps when you hold him under his arms, while his feet touch the floor. But this reflex will disappear at about six weeks, and you may not see your baby step again until he’s ready to walk. By three or four months, however, he’ll be able to flex and straighten his legs at will. Lift him upright with his feet on the floor and he’ll push down and straighten his legs so that he’s virtually standing by himself (except for the balance you’re providing). Then he’ll try bending his knees and discover that he can bounce himself. Although parents are often concerned about whether this kind of bouncing is harmful to the baby’s legs, it is perfectly healthy and safe.

Your baby’s hand and arm movements also will develop rapidly during these three months. In the beginning, his hands will be tightly clenched with his thumb curled inside his fingers; if you uncoil the fingers and place a rattle in his palm, he’ll grasp it automatically, yet he won’t be able to shake it or bring it to his mouth. He’ll gaze at his hands with interest when they come into view by chance or because of reflexive movements, but he probably won’t be able to bring them to his face on his own.

However, many changes will occur within just a month or two. Suddenly your baby’s hands will seem to relax and his arms will open outward. During the third month, his hands will be half open most of the time, and you’ll notice him carefully opening and shutting them. Try placing a rattle in his palm and he’ll grip it, perhaps bring it to his mouth, and then drop it only after he’s explored it fully. (The more lightweight the toy, the better he’ll be able to control it.) He’ll never seem to grow bored with his hands themselves; just staring at his fingers will amuse him for long stretches of time.

Your baby’s attempts to bring his hands to his mouth will be persistent, but mostly in vain at first. Even if his fingers occasionally reach their destination, they’ll quickly fall away. By four months, however, he’ll probably have finally mastered this game (which is also an important developmental skill) and be able to get his thumb to his mouth and keep it there whenever he wishes. Put a rattle in his palm now and he’ll clench it tightly, shake it, mouth it, and maybe even transfer it from hand to hand. Your baby also will be able to reach accurately and quickly—not only with both hands but with his entire body. Hang a toy overhead and he’ll reach up eagerly with arms and legs to bat at it and grab for it. His face will tense in concentration, and he may even lift his head toward his target. It’s as if every part of his body shares in his excitement as he masters these new skills.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Copyright © 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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