Research shows there are numerous benefits to exploring the world on all fours. Our experts share their insight. By Thobeka Phanyeko
Between seven and 12 months of age, when your baby is ready to become mobile, you may notice your little one creeping, or moving around on her stomach using her arms for support. When she starts crawling, she’ll advance from this position to raising her body using her arms and legs as she tries to propel herself forward. This is an important developmental milestone that parents are encouraged to embrace.
In her book Play, Learn and Grow, researcher and developmental specialist Dr Melodie de Jager says your baby will also start to moan, push and shove, which are all positive signs. She explains that this sparks the need for neural connections in the brain. “These neural connections take a while to develop, which means that your baby may continue to moan while she pushes and wriggles to develop all the muscles she needs to push herself up into an all-fours position.”
Dr de Jager cautions against coming to your little one’s rescue during this period, “as this could rob her of a chance to synchronise her inner senses and muscles, and cause her to miss the crawling phase.”
What are the benefits of crawling?
Crawling boosts gross- and fine-motor skills, which your child will benefit greatly from later in life when she is engaging in physical activities. The development and refinement of her muscle strength will enable her to run, jump and throw a ball with ease.
Other benefits include improved left and right brain coordination. The more time your baby spends crawling, the more coordinated these essential skills will become.
In order for your little one to crawl successfully, her arms and knees must work together. “While they are moving the hands forward, the eyes follow the hand movements, teaching the eyes to cross the midline and promoting eye-hand coordination,” explains Dr de Jager in her book.
This ability will be beneficial to your child later in life as she’ll be able to read without losing the words at the middle of the line, and visually follow the moving hand when writing.
Clinic sister Lorraine Mey shares other important reasons why your baby should crawl:
As your baby begins to move around independently, she has the freedom to set goals for herself. This gives her the opportunity to achieve, or fail to achieve, goals. This encourages emotional development and builds your baby’s sense of independence and confidence.
Navigating on the ground helps develop visual-spatial skills and depth perception. When crawling from one place to another, your baby often uses her “distance vision” to look ahead and set her sights on a specific goal. She then looks back at her hands. This requires her to adjust her visual focus. These adjustments are good for training the eye muscles and improving “binocular vision”, or the ability to use her eyes as a team. It’s also necessary for future skills like reading and writing.
When your baby crawls, she has to use her arms and legs to lift her trunk off the floor. While working against gravity to move, she’s strengthening her trunk, shoulders, arms, legs, wrists, elbows and hands because she has to constantly activate them to support her body weight.
Crawling and spinal development
The action of crawling plays a role in forming the curves of the spine. This is important for future spinal function.
What if my baby skips this milestone?
Mary Benbow, an occupational therapist and leading expert in paediatric hand development explains that “during the crawling period, the large joint at the base of the thumb is expanded into its full range of motion, so non-crawlers may have messier handwriting, for example.”
Babies who skip this milestone also aren’t as physically strong, so it may take more effort to pull themselves up from the floor. This physical strength can be developed in other ways though.
Physiotherapist Tracy Prowse says if your child crawls, it shows that she has the muscle strength and cognitive ability to crawl – even if it’s only for a couple of weeks. “The base is there, now she needs to maintain it. If she doesn’t crawl, she will learn these skills in other ways, at another time. It may just be slightly more work for her.”
Dr de Jager says while crawling is an important milestone, if your child doesn’t crawl, it doesn’t necessarily mean she will experience problems later in life. “However, if you consider that each motor milestone is also a brain development milestone, the importance of reaching every motor milestone can’t be stressed enough,” she adds. Contrary to popular belief, children who skip crawling aren’t more advanced or more intelligent.
5 tips to encourage your baby to crawl
Create an environment that allows your little one to explore. Place her on her tummy, as this will encourage her to explore the space around her. Also remember to pack away toys like walking rings in favour of a play mat or a push-along toy as these promote natural development.
- Ideally, your baby should be having tummy time five to eight times a day. Not all babies enjoy tummy time though, so play mats featuring lights, engaging activities and music will make it more enjoyable.
- You can improvise if you don’t have a play mat – any soft surface will do.
- Another great way to get your baby to move is to place toys just out of arm’s reach as this will encourage him to pull himself forward to get to the toy.
- Create fun obstacle courses at home. If your baby is already creeping, place soft objects like pillows in her path so she has to climb over them.
- Little ones love to be affirmed, so cheer her on when she’s making an effort and get on the floor with her if you can. This is also the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time together.
- Organising play dates will allow her to practise and learn from her peers.
Try these moves to get your baby ready to crawl
Physiotherapist Karen Rothbart recommends these exercises:
- To strengthen the shoulder girdles, place her on her tummy so she pushes up to straight arms.
- To strengthen abdominal muscles, sit your baby on a ball and, while holding her hips, bounce the ball gently. Roll the ball slowly in small circles while she is sitting on the ball. Make sure that she holds her body upright.
- After nappy changes, hold your baby’s hands and encourage her to lift her upper body off the mat and stand.
- To encourage crossing of the midline, place toys on either side of your baby while she is sitting up and playing. Encourage her to reach across her body for the toy.
When should I be worried?
Paediatric occupational therapist Dr Anne Zachary says when your baby reaches 12 months, you should talk to your doctor or well-baby nurse if she:
- Hasn’t shown an interest in getting mobile at all – even by bottom shuffling, slithering, scooting or rolling.
- Hasn’t worked out how to move his arms and legs together in a coordinated manner.
- Can’t use both arms and legs equally.
However, kids who don’t take the initiative to crawl, often just need a few physiotherapy sessions. If your baby doesn’t crawl and goes straight to walking, Karen advises physiotherapy when your child is three years old to help develop the components they missed, like strengthening the shoulder girdle, as well as abdominal and neck muscles, and developing rotation.
Thobeka Phanyeko is mom to Oratile, 4. She is a journalist with a BA in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and has extensive experience as a journalist and content producer which she gained from Reuters, eNCA and Caxton Magazines. She is also a life coach and NLP Practitioner and is passionate about motherhood and women empowerment.