Development of head control: newborn-10 weeks

Author: Pam Versfeld   Posted: 1 January 2018


The newborn infant has some limited control over the position of the head in supine and when supported upright. Newborn head control is characterized by: 

  • A strong tendency to turn the head to one side when at rest;
  • An ability to maintain the maintain the head in the midline when paying attention to an interesting visual event or when crying;
  • An ability to lift the head against gravity briefly, both in prone and when supported upright.

Over the next 10 weeks (the second months) the infant's control improves, in particular:

  • The ability to maintain the head in the midline
  • The ability to hold the head erect when supported in sitting 
  • The ability to hold the head up in prone 

A marked feature of head rotation in the first two months is the tendency for rotation to be coupled with neck extension and side flexion to the opposite side, which is a reflection of the balance in activity between the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles and deep neck flexor muscle activity (Bly B, 1994).  

     Will 10w supine repose momennts 7.jpg

Neonate - birth to 10 days


The full term neonate will usually lie with the head rotated to one side.  The rotation is associated with head on neck extension.  This tendency to rest with the head rotated to one side is in part influenced by the round shape of the head and weakness in the neck muscles.

Infants often have a preferred side, usually to the right (Ronquist et al 1998). The reason for this tendency is unclear. 

In this position the infant may bring her hand to the face, a movement that is very familiar from extensive experience in the intrauterine environment. 

W 7d LE actions 7.jpg

If the hand is moved into the infant's field of vision, it will preferentially engage the infant's visual attention (van der Meer 1997). 

   W 7d supine notices hand 1.jpg

The head is held in the mid-position for brief periods of time when the infant is actively moving the limbs or is distressed (Cornwell et al 1985). This is possibly due to increased activity in the neck and trunk muscles associated with the kicking actions. 

Will 7d head in midline.jpg

The infant will also actively move the head when the perioral region is stimulated, the direction of the movement depending on the area that is stimulated (the rooting response). The infant does not respond to stimulation provided by their own hand.  

Supported with trunk upright 

When the trunk is supported in an upright position the neck is usually flexed, however the newborn infant is able to lift the head and hold the it erect very briefly in response to an interesting visual event. 

newborn supported sitting.jpeg      M 2w sitting.jpg

Pull to sit 

When pulled to sit, the head lags behind the body, but does not fall back fully.   Once the trunk is erect, the infant will lift the head in line with the trunk. 

Newborn pts.jpeg   newborn pts2.jpeg

Visual regard 

Newborn infants will pay attention to interesting events that come into their field of vision. If the infant's head is supported in the midline, she will pay careful attention to an animated talking face.

newborn visual regard.jpeg

If the interesting moving face sticks out her tongue, the infant will, after a little while imitate the action.

Video: Will at 6 days 

Suggestions for watching the video

In this video you see Will constantly on the move,with arms upper and lower extremities moving at the same time. I find it helps to watch one aspect of his movement at a time, play it through observing his UE movements, then another time observing the LE movements, and a third time getting a more general impression. 

2-7 weeks

The infant still tends to lie supine with the head turned to one or the other side.

  • Head rotation is still associated with some neck extension
  • Head turning may be associated with an ATNR posture, but is not obligatory.  

W 5w quiet moment 1.jpg    W 5w swipe 1.jpg   W 5w focus on toy.jpg   Will 7w supine repose momennts 3.jpg

The infant is able to maintain the head in the midline when his attention is directed towards an interesting object suspended above the head. 

Will 7w supine repose momennts 1.jpg   

Will att 10 weeks supine 

At 10 weeks Will tends to lie with the UEs abducted and extended, a position that helps to stabilize the trunk and provide a stable base for head movements and kicking. 

Will 10w supine repose momennts 5.jpg

At 10 weeks Will is able to easily maintain his head in midline, as well as rotate the head to look at interesting events (objects and people) in the environment.  

Will 10w supine repose momennts 7.jpg   Will 10w supine repose momennts 8.jpg

He also combines neck rotation with extension of the head , which allows him to direct hs gaze in different directions. 

Will 10w supine repose momennts 6.jpg

However, control of the exact position of the head is clearly still developing, as rotation is usually associated with some neck extension and lateral flexion. This combination of movements suggests that the movement is broght about by contraction of the sternocleidomastoid muscles, with limited action in the deep neck stabilizers. 

Will 10w on playmat 2.jpg   Will 10w supine repose momennts 6.jpg   

Looking, reaching and grasping - 10 weeks 

Will has learned to steady his head and trunk when reaching for toys that are suspended in easy reach. 

Will 10w on playmat 1_1.jpg

Head control when pulled to sit (PTS) - 10 weeks 

The PTS maneuver is often used to assess infant motor abilities; the infants forearms are grasped and the infant is pulled up from supine into sitting. At 10 weeks Will anticipates the movement of the head when pulled to sit, and is able to maintain the head in line with the trunk as the PTS maneuver proceeds. 

Will 10w PTS 2.jpg

Once the trunk is upright and tilted forwards a little Will is able to hold the head in line with the trunk. He is also able to lift the head erect to look at me. 

Will 10w PTS 3.jpg   Will 10w PTS 4.jpg

In the video clip you see me pulling Will up 5 times. By the fifth repeat Will's neck muscles have started to tire and he is not able to keep the head in line with the trunk at the beginning of the PTS maneuver. 

Will 10w PTS 5.jpg

Head control in supported sitting - 11 weeks 

In supported sitting Will is able to maintain his head in line with his body when his trunk is tilted forwards. This requires sustained neck extensor activity.

Will 10w sitting pelvic support 1.jpg 

He can also stabilize his head when his trunk is tilted backwards, so that the neck flexors need to work to maintain the head position.  

 Will 10w sitting with support 6.jpg

When supported upright around the chest Will is able to maintain the head erect as he engages in an interesting interaction with Pam. Holding the head erect is associated with small range exploratory movements of the head in an A-P and lateral direction as the postural stability system explores the stability limits of the head on trunk system.  The wobbling action can clearly be seen in the video clip below. 

Head control in prone - 10 weeks 

At 10 weeks Will does not enjoy being in prone. However, if he is positioned so that he takes weight on his forearms, he is able to lift his head and maintain the position briefly. 

Will 10w prone forearm support 7.jpg

Useful resources 

New born exam: University of Utah

References and bibliography

Bentzley, J. P., Coker-Bolt, P., Moreau, N., Hope, K., Ramakrishnan, V., Brown, T., … Jenkins, D. (2015). Kinematic Measurement of 12-week Head Control Correlates with 12-month Neurodevelopment in Preterm Infants. Early Human Development, 91(2), 159–164.

Cornwell, K. S., Fitzgerald, H. E., & Harris, L. J. (1985). On the state‐dependent nature of infant head orientation. Infant Mental Health Journal, 6(3), 137-144.

da Costa CS, Saavedra SL, Rocha NA, Woollacott MH. Effect of Biomechanical Constraints on Neural Control of Head Stability in Children With Moderate to Severe Cerebral Palsy. Phys Ther. 2016 Oct 6.

Duncan K, Goodworth A, Da Costa CSN, Wininger M, Saavedra S. Parent handling of typical infants varies segmentally across development of postural control. Exp Brain Res. 2017 Dec 28. doi: 10.1007/s00221-017-5156-4. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 29285555.

Dusing, S. C., Thacker, L. R., Stergiou, N., & Galloway, J. C. (2013). Early Complexity Supports Development of Motor Behaviors in the First Months of Life. Developmental Psychobiology, 55(4), 404–414.

Dunsirn S, Smyser C, Liao S, Inder T, Pineda R. Defining the nature and implications of head turn preference in the preterm infant. Early Hum Dev. 2016 May;96:53-60. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2016.02.002.

Lee HM, Galloway JC. Early intensive postural and movement training advances head control in very young infants. Phys Ther. 2012 Jul;92(7):935-47.

Lima-Alvarez CD, Tudella E, van der Kamp J, Savelsbergh GJ. Effects of postural manipulations on head movements from birth to 4 months of age. J Mot Behav. 2013;45(3):195-203.

Lima-Alvarez CD, Tudella E, van der Kamp J, Savelsbergh GJ. Early development of head movements between birth and 4 months of age: a longitudinal study. J Mot Behav. 2014;46(6):415-22. 

Pineda, R. G., Reynolds, L. C., Seefeldt, K., Hilton, C. L., Rogers, C. L., & Inder, T. E. (2016). Head Lag in Infancy: What Is It Telling Us? The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70(1),

Reddy, V., Markova, G., & Wallot, S. (2013). Anticipatory Adjustments to Being Picked Up in Infancy. PLoS ONE, 8(6),

Rönnqvist L, Hopkins B. Head position preference in the human newborn: a new look. Child Dev. 1998 Feb;69(1):13-23. PubMed PMID: 9499553.

Van der Meer, a L. (1997). Keeping the arm in the limelight: advanced visual control of arm movements in neonates. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology : EJPN : Official Journal of the European Paediatric Neurology Society, 1(4), 103–8. Retrieved from

Ververs IA, de Vries JI, van Geijn HP, Hopkins B. Prenatal head position from 12-38 weeks. I. Developmental aspects. Early Hum Dev. 1994 Oct 28;39(2):83-91. PubMed PMID: 7875103.

Fetal head position relative to the fetal body was studied longitudinally in 10 uncomplicated pregnancies by means of real-time ultrasound. Registrations were made at 4 weekly intervals from 12 to 36 weeks, and at 38 weeks. The percentage of assessments with optimal visualization of head position for analysis increased with age. The development of head position involved a change from a midline to a lateralized preference. It was only at 38 weeks that a clear lateralized head position was found with the head being held mainly to the right. The degree of intra- and inter-individual variability was considerable, a finding typical of motor behaviour in the healthy fetus. It is hypothesized that this bias is due to neural maturation. The implications of our findings for the subsequent development of hand preferenceare discussed.