This morning I read an article in the Parenting Section of The New York Times about the making of an Olympian. The article discussed a new study, which was published in July in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Essentially, the study found that even when kiddos show serious promise in a particular sport, they’re likely to emerge better (more successful) adult athletes if they play different sports as a child, rather than focus on excelling at one early on. But before becoming the next Allyson Felix (legendary U.S. Olympian who recently became the most decorated American track & field athlete in Olympic history -- having surpassed Carl Lewis) or Michael Phelps (American winner of 28 Olympic medals in swimming, 23 of which are gold medals - approximately three times more than any other Olympic swimmer), or even a childhood prodigy like the Tiger Woods or Venus and Serena Williams, baby will first need to learn to be mobile. Generally, that starts in the second half of their first year. While this process actually starts with milestones like baby being able to lift his or her head and continues through to running, this article focuses on the developmental milestone of crawling.
Like most developmental milestones, crawling starts at any point across a fairly long range—anywhere from 5 to 13 months of age, with half of all babies starting to crawl at about 8 months. If baby is a bit bigger or heavier than is typical for his or her age, he or she may crawl later, as it is more challenging for babies to push up onto all fours and move their extra body weight. Also, babies who were born prematurely may also crawl later. So how do you know when the time is near?
Step One - Rocking It
The process of learning to crawl is actually pretty complex. Babies need to coordinate the movement of their arms and legs, and develop the muscle strength in their arms, shoulders, and legs to support their weight. They don't just go from tummy time to crawling across your home at surprising speed. Rather, before any ground is covered, you will often see baby on both hands and knees rocking back and forth. And wow is that exciting! (And to my point, if you watch the video below of my son rocking back and forth for the first time, you may want to mute your computer! Hahaha.)
Step Two - The Crawl Stroke
When baby feels confident and ready to move, they start to trying to cover some distance. But things may not go as intended. As babies figure out how to do the arm-leg-arm-leg crawling motion, they sometimes go backward first - even while meaning to go forward - which they may find frustrating. But sooner or later they will get it down and start the forward motion. What that motion looks like can be very different than you might expect.
As seen in that super-cute Pampers commercial, not all babies crawl the same way. Here are some of the "typical" crawl strokes you might see:
- "The Usual” - This is the classic crawl—alternating hand on one side and knee on the other.
- The “Crab” - Just like at the beach, the “crab” bends one knee and extends the opposite leg to scoot forward.
- The “Commando” - This crawler lies flat on her belly and drags herself forward using her arms. Think military crawling, where soldiers slide along the ground, moving by extending their arms and pulling their body to their arms, one side at at time.
- The “Roll” - Yep. Babies just roll to where they want go, like bigger kids rolling down hills, but across the room instead.
- The "Scoot" - Babies sit on their bottoms and push themselves along with their hands.
- The "Bear Crawl" - This is a variation on "The Usual", except babies keep their legs straight, rather than bent.
- The “Stride" - Not all babies crawl before they walk. As noted in Scientific American, some cultures discourage crawling. And sometimes babies simply decide to forego crawling altogether. (In fact, one of the babies in my PEPS group skipped crawling altogether.)
As long as a baby is making progress in their ability to use their body to get around, that’s what’s important.
How to Support Baby’s Crawling Skills
A recent study indicated that the amount of prior crawling experience, in whatever its form, helps baby identify risks and navigate the world more safely. As explained, "Caregivers should be aware of the important role crawling plays in infant development and the benefits of promoting crawling opportunities for their infants. By touching the floor and looking closely to it, infants learn to distinguish safe from unsafe surfaces to locomote and start avoiding falls, into the water or not...Over-protecting babies by limiting their opportunities to self-locomote does not keep them safe, instead, it delays their development of the perception of risky situations." The findings go against the contemporary tendency to "helicopter" or "snowplow" parent. Instead, they indicate the importance of allowing baby to navigate the struggle, to not jump in to "fix" things or prevent or stop baby from getting frustrated.
Here are some tips for safely supporting baby in crawling.
- Give baby plenty of tummy time, starting from birth. By playing on their bellies, babies develop the muscle strength in their shoulders, arms, back and trunk (torso) that helps them learn to crawl.
- Encourage baby to reach for the toys he or she is interested in. Lay interesting toys at just a short distance from your almost-crawler to encourage movement.
- Make sure your baby has space to explore that is safe and supervised. While the cited study links crawling to risk recognition, it in no way suggests you should let baby explore in an unsafe environment. As baby starts the journey toward movement, now is the time to take childproofing to a new level. For tips on how to best childproof, read this "Babyproofing Essentials in 2021: How to Make Your Home Safe for Baby" in Bumbershoots by Nana's Baby Blog.
- Place the palms of your hands behind baby's feet when baby is on all fours. This stabilizes baby and gives him or her something to “push off” from when just learning to crawl.
- Avoid baby walkers. Not only are they potentially dangerous, they limit practice time on the floor learning to crawl. Walkers can also hamper muscle development.
- Avoid leaving baby in baby seats and baby carriers too much. To learn to crawl and later walk, babies need plenty of time each day to practice - to play, move, and explore.
- Avoid pushing baby to learn to crawl. Pressing baby to develop a skill before baby is ready can actually slow the learning process.
When to Become Concerned
While experts often discuss general timelines for expecting certain milestones to occur, and while experts note that crawling can take different times and different forms, do not be shy about seeking medical advice if you think something is "off." I am a strong believer in parental/guardian intuition. You know your baby. Listen to that inner voice and trust it. While it never hurts to learn your concerns are unfounded, it can certainly help a lot to get assistance earlier rather than later if intervention is needed.
In most cases, there is nothing physically wrong with babies who are slow to crawl. They may just be busy working on other skills that are more interesting to them, like learning to use their hands to figure out how objects work. They may prefer to sit and explore the world visually or by touch (with their hands), instead of exploring through movement. Babies, like adults, have different preferences and interests.
That said, contact your child’s health care provider if:
- you notice that baby is using only one side of his or her body to crawl (baby pushes off with only one arm or drags one side of his or her body while scooting across the floor);
- baby is not making forward progress in using his or her body to get around; and/or
- baby doesn't bear some weight on his or her legs when you hold baby up by 7 months, or can't sit unsupported by 9 months.