Babies’ first motor skills – how early they learn to reach for things and explore them – are related to their later abilities, both motor skills (such as crawling and walking) and skills in other domains, such as their vocabulary. This raises the intriguing possibility that those early motor abilities facilitate subsequent developments, triggering what psychologists call a “developmental cascade”. This makes sense – for example, a baby who can already reach for and interact with things tends to attract more attention from his or her parents, which in turn is likely to foster further broad developmental progress.
A new study in Developmental Science has tested this cascade theory with a training intervention. The researchers in America recruited a group of 14 three-month-old babies and their mothers, and for two weeks, the mothers were instructed to engage their infants in ten minutes per day of active reaching training. This involved the babies wearing Velcro covered mittens and being encouraged to reach for Velcro covered toys, with the Velcro helping the babies to successfully reach for and obtain the toys. A comparison group of 11 three-month-olds and their mothers spent the same time performing a passive version of the training, without the Velcro, in which the mothers touched the toys to their infants’ hands. The babies also completed a basic test of their grasping skills, before and after their training.
When the babies were 15 months old, they returned to the psychology lab and were videoed playing with a bead-maze toy (a wooden block with metal wires attached, along which beads could be pushed). A further control group of fifteen 15-month-old babies who hadn’t participated in any training at three months were also videoed playing with the toy.
The babies who’d received the active reaching training at 3 months of age showed more precocious motor and attentional skills when playing with the toy, as compared with the two other groups. For example, they spent more time looking at, grasping and rotating the toy and less time being distracted. Moreover, the babies’ post-training, but not pre-training, grasping abilities at age 3 months were related to their play behaviour at 15 months, consistent with the idea that the early training had had a long-term influence.
The study involved only a small number of children, all of whom were from highly educated families, and this wasn’t a true randomised controlled trial because the no-training control group were recruited later and only visited the lab once. Nonetheless, these are fascinating results that suggest infants’ very early motor abilities have long-lasting knock-on effects on their later development, and that it may be possible to intervene early to assist this process. The researchers said intervening in this way might be particularly beneficial to babies born preterm and children at risk for autism, who are known to show motor delays and reduced grasping movements early in infancy.
Libertus, K., Joh, A., & Needham, A. (2015). Motor training at 3 months affects object exploration 12 months later Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12370
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