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Crawling

Crawling

Definition

Crawling is a slow creeping mode of locomotion, consisting of forward motion with weight supported by the infant's hands (or forearms) and knees. It is the primary means of mobility in infants.

Description

Crawling is the primary form of mobility achieved by infants before they learn to walk. It is the baby's first method of getting around efficiently on his or her own. In the traditional crawl, babies start by learning to balance on their hands and knees. Then they figure out how to move forward and backward by pushing off with their knees. At the same time they are strengthening the muscles that will soon enable them to walk.

Most babies learn to crawl between six and ten months. Some babies opt for another method of locomotion around this time, like bottom shuffling (scooting around on their bottom, using a hand behind and a foot in front to propel them), slithering on their stomach, or rolling across the room. Five percent of babies skip crawling altogether and move directly to pulling, standing, and walking. Parents should not worry about the infant's style; getting mobile is more important than how the baby does it.

Babies have a primitive crawling reflex at birth, which is instinctively activated when they are on their abdomens. Their legs flex, and they move forward, raising their heads to free them for motion. However, this reflex disappears during the early weeks of life, and true crawling does occur until six months, normally around the same time that an infant is able to sit up alone for extended periods of time. Learning to crawl occurs gradually and is usually complete by the time the baby is nine to ten months old.

Infancy

For most babies, creeping, wriggling, or slithering forward on the stomach comes before crawling, typically by the age of seven months. Infants also find that they can cover a distance simply by rolling from place to place. Especially on smooth floors, it is easy for them to move forward using only their arms or elbows and pulling their legs along, which are held out straight behind them. Infants can also get around while remaining in a seated position and pulling themselves with one or both arms, a form of mobility sometimes called hitching or bottom shuffling. From the infant's perspective, it has several advantages over crawling: it can leave one arm free, it allows better visibility, and the baby is already in a sitting position when she reaches her destination. Often, these alternate means of mobility are so convenient the child never learns to crawl, advancing directly to pulling herself upright and learning to walk. This is normal and not a cause for concern.

In creeping the infant is prone, with the abdomen touching the floor, and the head and shoulders supported with the weight borne on the elbows. The body is pulled along by movements of the arms, and the legs drag. The leg movements may resemble swimming or kicking.

Crawling is a more advanced locomotion than creeping. The trunk is above the floor, but parallel to it. The infant uses both his hands and knees in propelling himself forward. Not all infants follow this pattern of hitching, creeping, and crawling. Different children use different means of locomotion and may even skip a stage. (Skipping is especially likely if an infant is sick or for some other reason is unable to practice moving about).

Learning to crawl involves gradual trial-and-error attempts. When infants first get up on their hands and knees, they make modest attempts at movement, rocking or swaying in the direction they want to go. When they try to move, their balance is unstable, and they have trouble coordinating their movements, often moving an arm or leg and toppling over. One source of difficulty comes from the fact that neurological control over the arms and shoulders develops faster than control of the legs. For this reason once the infant is finally able to make real progress, he or she often moves backward, because it is easier to push harder with the hands and arms than with the feet. Although parents can provide temporary support by firmly placing their hands against the baby's feet, propelling them into forward motion despite themselves, backwards crawling typically persists for several weeks until the infant's coordination develops. Infants with greater strength in their hands, arms, and shoulders than in their legs and feet may learn to grasp, pull-up, and stand before crawling.

After crawling, the next stage is learning to walk. To that end, an infant soon begins pulling up on everything within reach. Once he or she gets the feel of balancing on the legs, an infant is ready to stand on his own and walk while holding onto furniture.

Common problems

Infant safety

Accidents are a leading cause of death in children from one to 24 months of age. They are second only to acute infections as a cause of acute morbidity and doctor visits. Most accidents in infancy occur because parents either underestimate or overestimate the child's ability. Parents need to learn about their infant's developmental progress to use appropriate childproofing measures.

Parental concerns

To encourage crawling, parents can place toys and other desirable objects just beyond the baby's reach. They can also use billows, boxes, and sofa cushions to create obstacles courses for the baby to negotiate. This kind of play improves the baby's agility and speed.

Once an infant can crawl, the parent needs to provide a safe, roomy area for exploration. The baby is at the beginning of one of the most intense periods of educational development of her life and needs to satisfy her natural curiosity and her enormous capacity to learn by exploring. Rather than restrict her to a small area, it is recommended that parents childproof the home and keep it that way for the next two to three years. The greatest dangers to an inquisitive infant include uncovered electrical outlets; ungated stairways; and household cleaners, medications, and other potentially toxic substances. Other childproofing precautions include removing or securely anchoring lightweight furniture; hiding or securing electrical cords that could be pulled on; keeping valuable items or small objects that could be swallowed out of the baby's reach; keeping crib bars raised high; and strapping the infant securely into high chairs, car seats, and strollers.

When to call the doctor

If a child has not shown an interest in getting mobile by some means, figured out how move his harms and legs together in a coordinated motion, or learned to use both arms and both legs equally by one year of age, parents may want to discuss the matter with their pediatrician.

KEY TERMS

Coordination The ability to do activities with precision and proficiency.

Creeping A form of locomotion in infants, in which the baby pulls the body forward with the arms while the belly and legs drag behind.

Developmental milestone The age at which an infant or toddler normally develops a particular skill. For example, by nine months, a child should be able to grasp and toss a bottle.

See also Gross motor skills.

Resources

BOOKS

Greene, Alan. From First Kicks to First Steps: Nurturing Your Baby's Development from Pregnancy through the First Year of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Lerner, Claire, et al. Bringing Up Baby: Three Steps to Making Good Decisions in Your Child's First Years. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press, 2005.

WEB SITES

"Developmental Milestones: Crawling." Baby Center. Available online at <www.babycenter.com/refcap/6501.html> (accessed December 14, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE

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