For Babies, Crawling Is About More Than Just Getting Around

By Christina Elston

When my daughter was a few months old, she mastered what we called the “army crawl,” wriggling forward on her tummy with the help of her knees and elbows. She – and we – were excited because she could now get to her favorite toys on her own. The cat was less enthused.

crawlingBut, according to infant-development specialist Karen Adolph, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, gaining the ability to move about on their own is connected with a host of developmental changes for babies beyond just getting across the room. These include emotional and social changes, changes in brain organization, and development of spatial skills, such as the ability to detect safe versus risky ground and sensitivity to the locations of things.

Adolph likens the difference between being carried and crawling independently to the difference between riding in a car and driving. A driver – and a crawler – have to pay closer attention and keep track of spatial information. Depth perception, navigational skills and decision-making (deciding which way to go) are all involved.

Janet Doman, director of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential (IAHP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to early child development, says that most babies can crawl from the time they are born, but aren’t usually given the opportunity. By the time most parents give their babies the chance to crawl, she says, the baby has gained weight and moving is more difficult.

The IAHP advocates giving babies "floor time" right from the start. “Only bundle up that baby when you absolutely have to,” urges Doman. "Otherwise, let him be free."

Encouraging babies to spend lots of time in motion has an added benefit for parents, Doman adds. “Floor babies, they sleep at night. They’re tired because they’ve been athletes all day.”

The IAHP offers a number of tips for encouraging your baby to get moving:

• Give the baby the maximum opportunity to be on his belly – on a warm, clean, safe floor – and to learn how to use his arms and legs to crawl.

• Avoid bundling the infant in layers of blankets and clothing that restrict movement. Put the baby in a T-shirt and diaper.

• Get down on the floor with your baby to encourage her to make the experiments that are needed to learn to crawl.

• Make your sessions short and sweet. Begin by having the baby move a few inches to reach you; then make the goal a foot, and then a few feet.

• Let the baby know that movement is great. Give lots of hugs and kisses when she crawls to you under her own steam.

• Do your best not to put your baby in a restrictive device unless you absolutely have to do so for his own safety. Car seats are life-saving and a must, but walkers, bouncers and other devices are restrictive and can be dangerous.

Adolph, who studies infant motor skills acquisition, says not to worry about how your baby chooses to move around, as long as it happens. She calls crawling a “transitional skill,” with the ultimate goal being walking. And even if your baby chooses the “army crawl,” or even scooting along on her bottom, over hands-and-knees creeping, that’s OK.

“If I call 10 different babies to crawl in the lab, I’ll see seven different crawling styles,” says Adolph. “It’s one of the really cool things about infant development. Every baby finds his own solution, and everyone gets to the same place.”