Transitional gross-motor milestones – part 1

Today I am going to begin talking about how babies move from one position to another. These movements are called transitions. We transition from one movement to another hundreds of times a day. We go from rolling over in bed, lying to sitting up, from sitting to standing, standing to squat to pick something up, kneeling to garden, moving in and out of the car, playing on the floor and getting back up. The list is endless and we would never think about it unless we injured ourselves, were pregnant, or until we age. The learning of these movements starts between four and six months, until then babies are totally dependent for position changes on their parents.

During the first twelve months of a baby’s life they are developing the ability to move in an upright position, finally ending up standing on one leg briefly as they walk. To achieve this, babies need to learn to move from one position to another using transitions. In the first year of life, a baby masters a number of transitions. These movements set the foundation for a child’s physical development throughout the first years of their lives (we call this physical literacy). The ability to attempt, practice, and master early movement is essential to a child’s physical, cognitive and social development. The first failed attempts to move, the subsequent practice, and eventual success lead to a series of experiences and risk takings as a child moves towards physical independence. The series of transitions a child makes during the first year of life are multiple. Some are small and some are monumental. Today I will discuss the first transition: Rolling.


This is the very first motor skill a baby learns that involves moving from one position to another. Without this, a baby cannot move from whatever position a carer places him/her in.

3 to 5 months

Babies begin to roll from as early as 3-4 months. Originally it is accidental! The baby does mini push ups, using his arms for support, with his head high, then he/she moves their weight to one arm and suddenly he/she tips and now he/she is on their back. The first few rolls surprise him/her and amaze you!! Though able to roll, it is without control and therefore your baby may not practice it on their own. At this age, most babies roll tummy to back, but either way is fine.

5 to 6 months

Babies are pushing up on strong long arms by 5 months and are able to lift their chests off the floor on their tummies. They may also lift their legs and rock or assume the superman flying position by lifting both arms and legs off together and balancing on their tummy. On their back they are lifting their legs off the floor and playing with their feet. This strengthening allows the baby to develop the muscles to roll in either direction, and by 6 months this movement becomes planned. Babies are now able to lie on their side as they roll from their back to their tummy. This position and the resulting completion of the movement involves a number of systems working together. These include vision (visual feed allows orientation of the baby’s head), the vestibular system (sensory system that assists with balance and awareness of spatial orientation), postural reactions that allow head righting on the baby’s body as they move. Then the baby continues to turn their head and extend their trunk as they move their top arm across their body (this is the beginning of crossing the midline) and then they extend their legs to complete the movement. They are off! Initially a baby will use rolling as their first form of locomotion as they roll from back to front to get a toy or a cuddle from you. This exploration of the environment and mobility skill is the building block of all other movements, creeping, moving in and out of sitting into all fours, crawling, and then moving up onto their feet will quickly develop from here.



Why is rolling important?

Rolling is the first transitional movement skill and allows a baby to:

  • Begin to explore their world and this is the first time babies can determine where they will go...they are off!
  • Learn to use both sides of their body together.
  • Learn how to use both arms and legs together (a prelude to creeping and crawling).
  • Develop strength in their head, back, and hips in preparation for sitting and crawling.
  • Develop motor planning and coordination, i.e. plan how to move for a purpose.
  • Learn about risk taking (those first few rolls are a complete change in how a baby sees the world).
  • Be aware of their environment and thus assist their cognitive development as they become aware of their environment and begin to control it.
  • Develop their sensory systems (use of their vestibular and optical systems).


How do I help my baby roll over?

Whenever assisting your baby to practice movement, incorporate it through play and/or song. There are lots of lovely rolling songs, i.e. “5 in the bed and the little one said…roll over…”

  • Put a toy to the side, just out of reach, and see if he’ll move to it, i.e. roll over.
  • Lie down just out of reach and encourage your baby to move to you.
  • Tip your baby gently to one side when on their tummy and they may roll over.
  • From three to four months, gently move one leg over the baby's body to the other side when the baby is on their back and see if he/she will follow with his arm –  they may only roll to the side initially.
  • Lie the baby on their back on a blanket towards one side – lift up the other side and see if you can roll him/her to their side or tummy. Give lots of praise and smiles…sometimes in the beginning it can be a bit scary for a baby when suddenly they are not where they started!

Always be aware to never leave your baby unattended on a high surface, even before they roll…you’d hate for his/her first roll to be off a raised surface.


What do I do if my baby doesn’t roll?

  • If your baby is a bit later than other babies at rolling you can try the above tips a bit more frequently. He/she may not like their tummy so you may need to try and increase their tummy time.
  • Every time you place him/her on the floor, roll them from their back to their tummy.


Assisting your baby to roll from one position to another gives a baby the experience of moving, the confidence that it is okay as you are showing them to do it, and helps develop the muscles, the sensory systems, and coordination to perform the movement independently.

If you have any concerns about your baby’s early movement skills please ask your doctor on your next visit or contact a paediatric physiotherapist.

Stay safe, happy, and well.



  1. Courtney Bucher on September 22, 2021 at 1:33 am

    This is great advise- Courtney, DPT

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