Reflexes and Fine Motor Development

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by Shannon Sweezy

A mother places her finger in her newborn baby’s palm and the baby curls her tiny fingers around her mother’s. This gesture is known as the grasp reflex, and it is the first experience babies have using their hands. Motor reflexes, such as the grasp reflex, are important because they aid in a baby’s development of fine and gross motor movement. As these reflexes are repeated they build dendrites in the motor area of the brain, which create more complex movements (Ferrell, 2011). For example, as a baby continues to instinctively react to something placed in their hand, the grasp reflex, they become aware of what is in their hand leading to the development of an intentional grasp. According to Ferrell (2011), grasp is the first important fine motor skill, and it leads to the development of three other fine motor skills: reach, release and wrist rotation.

Aside from the grasp reflex, the prone position also plays an important role in the development of grasp and manipulation. Ferrell (2011) notes that bearing weight on their fists in the prone position helps babies gain an awareness of their hands and arms, as well as ways that they can be used. Babies that do not receive experience in the prone position will have difficulty learning to use their hands. Fine motor development, including grasp and manipulation, is especially important in children who are blind or visually impaired because touch is their primary source of information, and it allows them to form concepts about their environment. If their ability to access information from their environment is affected, children with a visual impairment may develop difficulties in the area of cognitive development (Lueck, Chen, Kekelis, & Hartmann, 2008). As DTVs and DTO&Ms it is critical that we are aware of this information, so that we can (a) look for ‘red flags’ in a baby’s development and (b) integrate strategies that support the development of these fine motor skills with our families.

In our role as DTVs and DTO&Ms it is our job to find ways to encourage motor progress and collaborate with families to incorporate these strategies into their daily routines. It is important to provide children with continued opportunities to practice these skills, such as reaching and grasping for objects, as children with a visual impairment often require additional support to attain these milestones. These additional supports may include physical assistance or physical prompts. Trief & Shaw (2009), recommend using physical and verbal prompts when working with children to develop fine motor skills. For example, a therapist or caregiver can describe an object as it is being placed in a baby’s hand or help a baby to explore an object through hand-over-hand assistance. As a part of the early intervention team, we need to collaborate with the occupational therapist and physical therapist to provide an understanding of the importance of fine and gross motor skills in children with visual impairments. As we collaborate, these therapists can help us understand how we can support the motor development of children with multiple disabilities.

In addition to using their hands to perform tasks such as eating, playing or dressing, children with a visual impairment also use their hands to gather information from their environment. Therefore, the development of fine motor skills, such as reaching, grasping and manipulation are especially important. As DTVs and DTO&Ms we can monitor the progress of fine motor development along with the acquisition of visual skills. We can also collaborate with the occupational and physical therapists on the early intervention team, and work with the families to provide these children with ample opportunities to improve their fine motor skills.

 

References

Ferrell, K. A. (2011). Reach out and teach: Helping your child who is visually impaired learn and grow. New York, NY: AFB Press.

Lueck, A., Chen, D., Kekelis, L.S., & Hartmann, E.S. (2008). Developmental guideline for infants with visual impairments: A guidebook for early intervention. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind.

Trief, E., & Shaw, R. (2009). Everyday activities to promote visual efficiency: A handbook for working with young children with visual impairments. New York, NY: AFB Press.