The importance of crawling

Posted on July 14th, 2014

Crawling forms one of the key cornerstones in your baby’s development. Simone Krawitz gets to the crux of this important milestone.

Most babies learn to crawl between seven and 10 months and become adept at crawling by the time they’re a year old.

Babies adopt different styles of locomotion. With the normal reciprocal crawl, baby moves around on both his hands and knees. But he might take to another mobility style like shuffling around on his bum, slithering on his stomach or rolling.
Some experts say that if baby’s using his arms and legs equally on both sides of his body and learning how to coordinate them, there’s not much to worry about. But physiotherapist, Karen Rothbart says that we should do what we can to get baby crawling in the normal reciprocal pattern.
Clinical sister, Larraine Mey, says that one of the key benefits of a reciprocal crawl is activating the simultaneous working of the left and right sides of the brain. This isn’t achieved with slithering, rolling or scooting.

Babies need three components to crawl:

  1. Strength and stability in the shoulder girdle (muscles around the shoulder blade)
  2. Abdominal strength
  3. The ability to rotate the trunk over the hips (so that baby’s able to cross over the body’s midline).

Rothbart says that these three components should be addressed to encourage a baby with delayed crawling to start moving.

The following exercises help strengthen these areas:

  • To strengthen the shoulder girdle, do activities that get baby to put weight on his arms like laying on his tummy and pushing up on straight arms.
  • To strengthen abdominal muscles, sit baby on a ball and, while holding his hips, bounce the ball gently. Roll the ball slowly in small circles while your baby’s sitting on the ball. Make sure that he holds his body upright. After nappy changes, hold baby’s hands and encourage him to lift his upper body off the mat and come up into a sitting position.
  • To encourage rotation (or crossing the midline) place toys on either side of baby while he’s sitting playing. Encourage him to reach across his body with the opposite hand to fetch his toy.

Four reasons why it’s important for baby to crawl

According to Mey, crawling engages the baby’s entire body and is an all-important link between physical and neurological development. Physical and neurological benefits include:

1. Socio-emotional development
As a 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. Setting goals and reaching them or failing at them helps with emotional development and builds a baby’s sense of independence and confidence.

2. Developing visual skills and depth perception
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’. This is the ability to use one’s eyes as a team. It’s also necessary for future skills like reading and writing. Rothbart explains that spatial perception helps with fine motor skills.

3. Developing muscle strength
When a baby crawls, he has to use his arms and legs to lift his trunk off the floor. While working against gravity to move about, he’s strengthening the muscles in his trunk, shoulders, arms, legs, wrists, elbows and hands because he has to activate them constantly to support his body weight.
Felice Sklamberg, a paediatric occupational therapist, says that, “Non-crawlers aren’t as strong; they have a harder time as older children pulling themselves out of a pool, climbing a jungle gym, or even picking themselves up from the floor.”

4. 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.

Developing fine motor coordination and control

Rothbart explains that, “Crawling’s the only stage in the development cycle where the baby’s taking weight through the shoulder girdle on extended arms.”
She adds that this movement builds strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. “If a person has good stability at the top of the upper limb (arm), it ensures good mobility, control and function in the hand.
This improves fine motor coordination.”
Rothbart adds: “When crawling, the arches of the hand are defined established, making hand movements more efficient.”
She advises that a baby should crawl for at least two months in the normal reciprocal way to benefit from crawling.

When to take action

Paediatric occupational therapist, Dr Anne Zachary, says that when your baby reaches 12 months, you should talk to your doctor or well-baby nurse if he:

  • 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 coordination motion
  • Can’t use both arms and both legs equally.

Although well placed, your concerns needn’t escalate to panic. Kids who don’t take the initiative to crawl often just need a few physio sessions.
But if a baby doesn’t crawl and goes straight to walking, Rothbart advises that they go for physiotherapy at around three years to try and develop the components that they missed like strengthening the shoulder girdle, strengthening their abdominal and neck muscles and developing rotation.


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