These days, crawling is very controversial. I want to explain why crawling is important and what are the benefits of crawling, even in normally developing babies.
There is a lot of research proving the link between crawling and certain aspects of brain development, but no studies have directly looked at the effects of not crawling.
There is enough evidence showing that not crawling may lead to reduced strength in the shoulder girdle and trunk in children with disorders like ADHD, autism and learning disabilities.
We all know what is crawling: The baby’s body is supported on palms and knees and the movement occurs when alternate hand and leg are moved forward.
What skills are necessary for crawling?
1. Strength (arm and core muscles):
Strength develops when muscles work against gravity. Baby needs to get adequate tummy time starting from birth onwards to help develop the muscles needed for crawling.
When a baby is placed on tummy, the muscles at the back of the arms, neck and trunk (extensors) are activated. The more they are used, the stronger they become.
2. Balance: Balance comes from repeated practice. Allowing the child to explore and fall (within safe limits) are necessary. Babies need lots of practice of coming up on hands and knees, then rocking in that position and finally figuring out how to move forward
See how babies get progressively stronger:
Why is crawling important?
1. Crawling helps anti-gravity arm neck and back muscles get even stronger. Crawling is the end point of a series of milestones, all of which are important for developing strength in anti-gravity muscles of our body.. Once baby starts walking, these muscles will not be used in weight bearing again.
These core muscles are used to stabilize the arm for all fine motor skills. Imagine trying to write or eat or point if the shoulder is not stable. Hard isn’t it?
2. Crawling helps improve visual skills like depth and distance perception. Let’s do a simple exercise. Stand on one leg and count how long you can stand. Next, close your eyes and try to stand on one leg. See the difference? That is how important vision is for our balance and coordination. As you can imagine, these skills are also very important for all sports.
3. Crawling is the first activity that “connects” both sides of the brain.
Many skills like social interactions (language is processed by the left side but recognizing tone, facial expression and body language is done by the right) and Maths (Right brain handles problem solving while the left handles the actual calculations) need both sides of the brain to activate together.
4. Crawling is the bridge between floor activities to the upright posture of standing and walking.
When babies do not crawl, is seen that parents will give their fingers for support and the baby will pull up to standing while keeping their knees straight. This movement does not develop anything- no strength, no coordination, inappropriate sensory feedback and no practical use at all!
5. Crawling is very important in building a “body map” in our brain and also develops spatial awareness (awareness of how our body moves in space)
6. Crawling and getting in and out of crawl position helps develop knee control and hand strength.
If the knees have not been strengthened, the child will not bend the knees in case of a fall. If the hands have not been strengthened earlier on, they will not be able to stop a forward fall (protective reaction) and the child is likely to hurt their face.
The body map, strength and protective reactions are major components of our body being able to move in a coordinated manner. (3)
Since we just saw the benefits of crawling, why are babies are skipping crawling?
My expert opinion is the biggest factor is lifestyle change. Babies are lying on their back in equipment like strollers, bouncers, car seats, swings and then in passively in upright positions like in bumbo seats, walkers and jumperoos. As parents are constantly on the go, babies are getting less floor time to explore and reach this milestone. Babies are not being given enough opportunity to be on the floor and use and strengthen their muscles appropriately.
For many parents, walking is the ultimate goal, the finish line. But the skills leading up to walking are just as important. Movements are like mathematics, in that you cannot grasp advanced concepts if your core is weak.
It’s not important to crawl for certain duration of time before walking. Getting into the position and moving even for a short few days is enough to provide benefits for brain development.
What we can do to encourage crawling:
1. A positive learning environment and experience is essential for learning any skill. The best way to encourage crawling is by allowing tummy time and floor time from the beginning.
2. If your child is not comfortable with tummy time there are ways to encourage this. Look up resources at http://pathways.org/growth-development/tummy-time/
3. Children are great imitators. By you actually demonstrating the position and movement, the baby might want to copy you.
4. You could hold the baby on the hands and knees position over your stretched out leg or a rolled up blanket and gently rock him, asking baby to reach for a toy.
5. Once the baby is balancing in crawl position, you can encourage him to crawl towards you by sitting slightly out of reach and maybe even presenting a fun toy.
6. Crawling through tunnels, over pillows/cardboard boxes, under chairs and up and down stairs is a great way to have some variety.
To conclude, what does this all mean?
While there is no evidence to suggest that missing crawling will cause problems later, there is enough evidence supporting the beneficial effects of crawling. As a therapist, I believe prevention is better than cure. As a parent, I would weigh the risks and benefits with evidence and make my choice to encourage crawling.
In the long scheme of things, crawling is just another milestone which comes and goes within a few weeks. But the foundational skills achieved in this time last for a lifetime.
(1) Shumway-Cook A, Woollacott MH. Development of Postural control In Motor Control: Theory and practical applications. 2nd Ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (2001) 192-221.
(2) Kretch KS, Adolph KE. Cliff or step? Posture specific learning at the edge of a drop-off. Child Development, 2013. 84(1); 226-240
(3) Bell MA, Fox NA. Crawling experiences is related to changes in cortical organization during infancy: evidence from EEG coherence. Developmental psychobiology, 1996. 29(7) 551-561.
(4) Adolph KE, Berger SE, Leo AJ. Developmental continuity? Crawling, cruising and walking. Developmental Science, 2011. 14(2); 306-318.