I work as a pediatric occupational therapist, so my ears always perk up when I hear parents comment about their child’s motor skill development. I recently heard a parent proudly exclaim, “My baby never crawled. She was an early walker!” I cringed just a bit.
I was taught in therapy school that the experience of crawling plays a critical role in infant development, and that it is not good for a baby to skip this milestone. Yet, just as this mother said, we often hear of infants totally bypassing the crawling phase to go straight to walking. Whether or not crawling truly plays a significant role in infant development is a matter of debate among some medical and research professionals, but many pediatricians and therapists firmly believe that parents should encourage their little ones to crawl on all fours, at least for a brief period of time.
Why? There is growing evidence that crawling plays a role in the development of an infant’s strength, balance, spinal alignment, visual-spatial skills, and socio-emotional development.
Crawling engages the baby’s whole body. When a baby crawls, he has to use his arms and legs to lift his trunk off of the floor. While working against gravity to move about, he is strengthening the muscles in his trunk, shoulders, arms, legs, and hands. Holding his wrists in an extended position and bearing weight on his hands while crawling develops the arches in his hands, influencing fine motor skill development. The action of crawling also plays a role in forming the curves of the spine, which are important for future spinal function.
Crawling also influences the development of visual skills. When crawling from one place to another, a baby frequently uses her “distance vision” to look ahead and set her sights on a goal. She then looks back at her hands, which requires her to adjust the focus of her eyes. These adjustments are good for training the eye muscles and improving binocular vision, which is the ability to use the eyes together as a team. Efficient binocular vision is necessary for the future skills of reading and writing.
Crawling also influences an infant’s socio-emotional development. This means that positive and negative emotions are expressed more frequently and intensely as this skill develops. In fact, infants only develop a fear of heights after several weeks of experience with crawling. As a baby begins to move about independently, she has the freedom to set new goals, which results in increased opportunities to fulfill those goals, as well as new possibilities for failure. Setting goals and reaching them or failing at them affects emotional development and ultimately impacts a baby’s sense of autonomy and confidence.
When a baby crawls in the traditional manner, the right and left sides of the brain and body must work cooperatively together. This action is called cross-lateral integration, and it builds a foundation for skills that require motor coordination. However, many infants get around by rolling, bottom scooting, or crawling commando-style, and that is just fine. You can always play crawling games with your child later on to provide experience with cross-lateral integration.
Most parents look forward to the day when their infant begins to crawl, which typically occurs somewhere between 6 and 10 months. The best way to ensure that your baby meets this developmental milestone is to provide plenty of tummy time. Although many infants resist tummy time, this position is important for a number of reasons. When positioned on the belly, the muscles in the neck, back, and arms are strengthened, which provides a foundation for the ability to roll over, assume the hands-and-knees position, and eventually, crawl. The less time that an infant spends in plastic devices such as carriers, carseats, and bouncer seats, and the more time spent uninhibited on the floor, the greater the likelihood the baby will crawl. Also, resist holding your infant’s hands and “practicing” walking with him until he has had some experience crawling. There is always the possibility that this will encourage him to move straight to walking and miss out on the crawling phase.
As a parent, what should you do if you notice that your baby is pulling up and beginning to take independent steps prior to crawling? First of all, don’t panic. You can ensure that your little one experiences crawling in a variety of different ways, so go ahead and allow her to explore in the ways that she naturally chooses, and in the meantime, try some of the following tips and techniques to encourage crawling.
- Get down on all fours and demonstrate crawling for your baby. This may be just enough motivation to encourage your little one to give it a try.
- Roll up a thin towel or receiving blanket and position it under baby, providing support to his trunk. As baby is positioned on his hands and knees, physically guide him through the motions of rocking back and forth. This will sometimes “jump-start” crawling.
- Place your arm on the floor behind baby’s feet when he is on his hands and knees. This will give your little one a surface to push against. You can also slightly push against his feet to provide some forward motion.
- When baby is in the hands-and-knees position, sit in front of him and perform by making silly faces, or place fun and interesting toys just out of reach to encourage him to move forward.
- If baby has started taking a few steps, there are commercially available children’s tunnels that parents can purchase for crawling through during playtime. It is also fun to cut a hole in either end of a large cardboard box for play. Parents can also pretend to be a kitty cat or puppy dog, and encourage baby to chase them around as they both crawl.
- Homemade obstacle courses are also a fun way to encourage children to crawl over and under cushions, pillows, etc.
Obviously, there are many children who completely skip the developmental stage of crawling and never have any problems later in life – yet it’s evident that crawling has the potential to impact many facets of the developmental process. As a therapist, I truly believe that it is better to be safe than sorry. Why not get down on the floor and encourage your baby to crawl around on all fours? Play with your child, taking the time to have fun with these experiences, because your little one will be toddling around before you know it!