Why crawling is such an important physical stage
Crawling is an important physical stage in its own right which enables babies to break away from their carers for the first time and is significant in reflex development, says Anne O’Connor…
Ko (9 months) is out in the park with his mum. They don’t have a garden but mum takes him out somewhere every day. Mum’s first language is Japanese and she also speaks English. Ko was asleep in his sling when they arrived and mum laid him down on the grass until he woke up naturally. Ko has just begun crawling. After a few minutes of playing with mum and getting used to his surroundings in the park, he begins cautiously to move off and crawl around, stopping to focus on the grass and plucking at the daisies, as well as watching the people passing by. He keeps close to mum’s body, scrambling over her legs and then crawling carefully around her as she sits on the grass. She keeps talking to him, laughing with pleasure as he reappears from behind her back. As his confidence grows, he branches out a bit further, crawling off towards the bench at the edge of the grass. He quickly comes back to mum, who greets him warmly, bringing her focus down to his face and clapping her hands on the ground as he quickly crawls towards her.
1 Ko has recently begun to crawl and is enjoying the new-found freedom and independence that this brings him. He is no longer completely dependent on someone providing interesting things to stimulate him – he is able to go off and find them for himself. Increased scientific understanding of child development helps us to appreciate this crucially important stage of a baby’s development and the link between physical development and the building of brains.
When he is crawling, Ko is doing more than just getting around. He is developing several important physical aspects, all of which are important for his future learning and development. Jan White describes these fully in the notes for this Siren Film; here are a few of the main ones:
- Vision His vision and spatial awareness is being developed by moving freely in a space with things that are both near and far from him. His eyes are focusing on his hands and the ground as he moves along, and also on things in the distance. The open spaces of the park provide lots of opportunities for long-distance focus like this.
- Brain The alternating movements on each side of his body as he crawls help build the connection between both sides of his brain. This cross lateral movement encourages both sides of his body to work together.
- Body awareness Taking his weight on his hands, arms, knees and legs and feeling their impact on the ground as he moves across the grass helps Ko with his proprioception, or body awareness. This is what helps him to understand where his body starts and finishes, which is important for later co-ordination.
- Reflexes There are several important reflexes that are present at birth or in the first year. The symmetrical tonic neck reflex is important in crawling – it tells the arms to straighten when the knees bend and if the arms are bent, it makes the legs want to straighten. This reflex makes the regular crawling position easy and instinctive. It usually dissipates and goes away when it is no longer needed, once the child is walking.
2 As the above points clearly demonstrate, crawling is an important part of physical development in its own right, and not just a preparation for walking.
The importance of crawling explains why it can sometimes be a problem for some children who begin to walk early and miss out on valuable crawling time.
The work of Sally Goddard Blythe and others has drawn attention to the problems that can occur when these early reflexes remain longer than needed. For one reason or another, a child may not have had enough opportunity to work through a particular process, so the reflex has been retained.
Not having enough crawling experience can mean that the symmetrical tonic neck reflex is still active, which can make some actions difficult as a child gets older. Imagine sitting at a desk and bending your arms to write, and your legs instinctively wanting to straighten out?
It looks like you are slumping, but your body is just responding to the instinctive reflex. Similarly, if you are being good and sitting up straight with your knees bent, then your body resists bending your arms so that you can write properly. There are intervention and treatment programmes that can address these reflex issues and other neuro developmental delays, but one important preventative measure is to ensure that babies and young children continue to get lots of natural opportunities for playful crawling, before and after they have begun to walk. (See References and Further Reading for more information.)
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Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World © www.nurseryworld.co.uk