Milestones

Close up of baby's hand making decision and picking up a bigger sized blueberry on high chair
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Pincer Grasp: What Parents Need To Know

Like how to work on this skill with your baby.

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Of the developmental milestones your baby will reach during their first year or so of life, feeding themselves is a big (and helpful) one. The same skills they use to pick up their food or hold a spoon are the ones they’ll eventually use to start dressing themselves, drawing, and writing. But before all of that can happen, they’ll first need to master a fine motor skill called a pincer grasp.

What is a pincer grasp?

A pincer grasp is a fine motor skill that occurs when the tips of the pointer finger and thumb come together to grab an object. As the name implies, this motion creates a “pinch” that is used to pick up small items like pieces of food or toys and eventually develops into the ability to zip a zipper, button a button, hold a pencil, and so much more.

At what age does the pincer grasp develop?

“Typically, a pincer grasp will start to develop around 9 or 10 months old and is expected by their first birthday,” Kimberly Booras, supervisor of occupational therapy at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Omaha says.

Every child is different, so some may master this fine motor skill earlier or later than others. In the beginning stages of pincer grasp development, you might see your baby make a raking motion with their hands or use their palm and fingers to scrape up objects (more on this below) but not quite pinching to pick up yet. Once the skill is fully developed, however, it is referred to as a refined or superior pincer grasp.

How do you know if baby has pincer grasp?

“If the child consistently holds small objects between the tip of the pointer finger and tip of the thumb, this is a correct superior pincer grasp,” says Anne Zachry, PhD, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of Retro Baby: Timeless Activities to Boost Development—Without All the Gear! from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Once you see your baby successfully picking up small things like puffs off of their high chair tray, that’s a pretty good sign that they’ve got the hang of the pincer grasp. Again, meeting this milestone can come any time between about 9 and 12 months of age.

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Baby developmental milestones: Type of grasps to watch for

If you’re worried that your baby’s fine motor skill development is behind, talking to your pediatrician is a great first step. They can help you determine whether or not your baby has reached specific developmental milestones by looking for the following types of grasps:

Palmar grasp

At birth, babies have a palmar grasp reflex that allows their fingers to instinctively curl around an object they feel on their palm — most often this is the tiny fist they make around a parent or caregiver’s finger. As far as fine motor skill development is concerned, an actual palmer grasp develops later.

“Around 5 to 6 months of age, an infant will begin to intentionally wrap all his fingers — excluding the thumb — around an object,” Zachry says.

Inferior grasp

After mastering the intentional full-fist palmar grasp, the inferior grasp — also called a crude pincer grasp — will soon follow. “An inferior grasp is a precursor to a mature pincer grasp,” Booras says. “Inferior grasp looks like a pincer grasp, but the child uses the pad of their thumb and index finger, instead of the tip, to pick up the item.”

Pincer grasp

As explained above, the ability to bring the tip or end of their thumb and index finer (also called the pointer finger) together in a “pinching” motion to pick up a small object is called a pincer grasp. Mastery of this fine motor skill is also sometimes called a superior pincer grasp, mature pincer grasp, or refined pincer grasp.

How to work on the pincer grasp: Activities & toys to try

If you’re concerned about your child meeting this milestone, there are a variety of baby toys and activities to incorporate into their everyday routine that can help them develop their pincer grasp. Since these activities to work on the pincer grasp all involve small objects, it is important not to leave your baby unattended while they practice.

“You can promote a pincer grasp by placing smaller items into a container and having your baby pick them up,” Booras says. “Once your baby begins to eat table foods, you can also promote a pincer grasp by having your baby pick up safe foods for them that are bite-sized.”

During snack time, Zachry recommends using an ice cube tray with puffs or Cheerios in each section. “This will encourage the baby to use a pincer grasp when reaching in to grasp the pieces,” she explains. You can secure the tray to the tabletop or place a non-slip mat underneath to keep it from sliding around.

Here are a few other activities that Zachry says can help your baby work on their pincer grasp:

  • Have them peel stickers off of a sticker sheet and place them on a piece of paper.
  • Tape a piece of contact paper to the wall with the sticky side facing outward, then have them pick up small pompoms or cotton ball pieces and stick them to the contact paper.
  • Cut several colorful straws into small pieces and have them pick up one piece at a time and drop it into the top of an open (empty) water bottle.
  • Take a kitchen whisk and stuff it full of small pompoms for them to remove.

What toys help with pincer grasp?

“Playing with toys that require a pincer grasp provides opportunities for practicing the skill, which is how motor learning occurs,” Zachry says. “Practices improves muscle strength and coordination, and it will also improve your little one’s confidence!”

Though you can certainly use the activities above to work on pincer grasp, below are a few toys that Booras recommends:

Despite the fact that babies all mature at different rates, it’s totally normal to be concerned about your baby’s development. For questions about whether or not they are meeting their milestones or have mastered the fine motor skills appropriate for their age, you can always give your pediatrician a call.

Experts:

Anne Zachry, PhD, OTR/L, pediatric occupational therapist, author Retro Baby: Timeless Activities to Boost Development—Without All the Gear!

Kimberly Booras, supervisor of occupational therapy at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, NE