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Although we may curse the additional complications and effort that arise when our babies start crawling, it’s an important milestone in their development. Research has shown that many children who didn’t crawl properly struggle later with poor balance, weak upper-body strength and poor hand-eye coordination. A recent study has also demonstrated that kids who didn’t crawl as babies scored lower on pre-school assessment tests than those who did.
Crawling is your baby’s first method of getting around efficiently on his own. Some babies do it instinctively, while others need a little help. The age range at which babies start crawling varies: 50 per cent of infants have started crawling by seven months; 75 per cent are crawling by ten months; and 90 per cent have mastered the art by 11 months.
Through crawling, babies learn and discover spatial concepts like “in”, “over”, “under” and “out”, which also develops the sensory and motor stimulation needed for gross and fine muscle development. It also develops the basic physical strength necessary to stand, walk and write correctly later.
In many households, you can see almost comical variations of crawling: bear walking, bum shuffling, and even a version called commando crawling, where the baby is mobile on their tummy. These different styles don’t necessarily provide the same benefits as traditional crawling; however, they are an improvement to no crawling at all.
In a traditional crawl, a baby will first discover how to balance on his hands and knees and then progress by moving forward and backward by pushing off with his knees. This process will strengthen the muscles in his hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders, which will encourage future development and movement.
In 1994, several health organisations started to encourage parents to put babies to sleep on their backs to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This life-saving campaign decreased the incidence of SIDS by 50 per cent, but, according to several studies, had an inadvertent negative impact on children reaching development milestones on schedule.
What became apparent was that parents didn’t want to risk putting their children on their tummies, even during the day when they were awake and able to watch them. This resulted in babies being unfamiliar to time on their tummies – the starting position for crawling – and therefore not building up the necessary muscles in their upper bodies. However, the most common reason for babies not crawling is being carried around or strapped in a chair all day and not being allowed the chance to learn the skills.
Here are some of the key developmental benefits that crawling provides:
- Crawling strengthens the trunk and link muscles, which are crucial for fundamental movement skills (gross motor skills). It also refines the fine motor muscle groups by improving hand-eye coordination.
- It provides the first opportunity to practise bilateral coordination, i.e. using arms and legs in reciprocal movements. These skills are used in activities like getting dressed, self-feeding and sports. A non-crawler can catch up, but might be slower at achieving these skills.
- The weight bearing on the hands helps develop arches and stretches ligaments in the wrist and hand (especially the thumb). Non-crawlers may have messier handwriting later, for example.
- The repetitious movement allows the neural network connections in the brain to be stimulated, organised and better developed, assisting the control of cognitive processes such as comprehension, concentration and memory more efficiently. Crawling increases the production of myelin, the substance coating the neurons, which helps the brain send and receive messages faster and more clearly.
- The head movement involved in crawling stimulates the inner ear of the vestibular system, which affects overall balance and sensory input.
- Crawling leads a baby to understand where they are in their environment, which stimulates abstract thinking skills, which, when developed, will assist them in tasks such as mathematics.
- Cross-lateral movements of crawling strengthen both hemispheres of the brain. This helps to simultaneously coordinate the use of both eyes, ears, hands and feet. It helps the brain share important sensory information and store and retrieve information more rapidly. It is estimated that babies need to make 50,000 crawling movements to create enough neural pathways to integrate the left and right hemispheres to enable optimal learning capabilities as they grow older.
Having recognised the enormous range of benefits that crawling can bring, how do you encourage your child if they are slow to get moving? Many babies do not start to crawl if they are spending too little time on their tummies, which can often be a result of using a baby walker continuously or not being encouraged to reach for toys. Here are some tips to encourage your baby to get on all fours:
- Sit down on the floor with your legs stretched out; lay your baby prone across your legs. This position forces your baby to take some weight on both arms and knees. Place a mirror or reflective surface in front so that your baby can see himself.
- Lay a towel on the floor, and lay your baby on his tummy across the width of the towel with his head and arms hanging over the edges. Gently pick up the two towel ends and raise the baby up until he’s on his hands and knees. Encourage the baby by gently lowering the towel as he is able to increasingly take more weight on his arms and legs.
- If your child does not like to crawl or has only crawled for a short period of time, use games to encourage him and make it fun:
- Use a tunnel or short tent to crawl through and play peek-a-boo.
- Place toys out of reach, so the child has to move to get to them.
- Pretend to be a dog and chase him around while he is on all fours.
- Do puzzles or play games on the floor together.
- Read books on the floor with the baby lying on his tummy, supporting himself on his arms.
The first year of life is a time of many milestones, and not all children who don’t crawl will have difficulties with learning and integrating their reflexes. Children will crawl when they are ready, and to rush the process may not be in the child’s best interest; however, gentle encouragement should be embraced.
Melanie Potgieter is a Registered Physiotherapist who practices at Island Health Family Practice. Call 2987 7575 to make an appointment.