Using the thumb and forefinger to pick up things like peas or Cheerios—aka the pincer grasp—is a tiny, yet mighty, movement. For early childhood experts, the pincer grasp marks a momentous developmental milestone, showing that a baby's brain, muscles, and nervous system are becoming highly synchronized and capable of increasingly sophisticated coordination.
"The pincer grasp will eventually allow a child to button a shirt, use a pencil, play the violin," says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., a clinical instructor in pediatrics at UCLA. "But [even] when it first emerges, typically between 8 and 12 months, it opens up a whole new world for a baby to explore." With thumb and forefinger working together, blocks can be stacked, not just whacked; bits of food can be picked up and eaten without help; and (the bad news) coins can be pried off the floor and swallowed.
The precise grasp doesn't spring up overnight. Instead, it subtly and slowly progresses equally in both hands. Around 6 months, a baby will begin to pick up objects by pushing her hand over a toy and curling her fingers around it. Between 7 and 9 months, she'll start to grasp things using her fingers and thumb.
Lifting up small doodads with just two tiny fingers becomes possible around 9 months, but the pincer grasp gets really refined by the end of the first year. Luckily, at this time a baby also is developing the ability to put things down precisely—instead of relying on gravity. Once forefinger-thumb coordination kicks in, children begin to hoist and place things with accuracy, practicing the dexterity they'll need for jigsaw puzzles and sorting Matchbox convertibles. But watch out: Once a former fumbler masters the pincer grasp, retaliatory cheek pinches for Aunt Edna may not be far behind.