Anyone who regularly uses the expression "slowed to a crawl" has never really watched a 10-month-old scramble across a room on his hands and knees. Okay, so maybe it's not exactly the four-minute mile -- but in some ways, it's even more amazing. After all, just a few short months ago, that little mover and shaker didn't even realize his arms and legs were attached to his body!
Although a baby has a way of making crawling look easy, there's a lot more to this fascinating activity than the blur of movement that meets a parent's proud eye. Read on to learn how your child matures both physically and mentally in order to become mobile.
Before your baby can crawl an inch, a number of infant reflexes must fade. You probably noticed some of these automatic behaviors during her early weeks: the way her fingers curled around yours if you tickled her palm or the way her limbs shot out when she was startled. "But think how hard it would be for your baby to get around if her hands balled up every time her palms touched the floor, or if her legs flailed whenever she heard a loud noise," says Susan Berger, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in the division of general academic pediatrics at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital.
Most babies outgrow these instincts during their first year of life as they start to sit upright and explore the world. At the same time, two new reflexes emerge. One, the lateral tilt reflex, causes your baby to extend a steadying hand if he wobbles while sitting. The other, the parachuting reflex, makes him reach up and grasp for something to buffer a fall. Both come in handy as he starts getting around. Crawling also corresponds to a baby's increasing ability to spot things at a distance. "The main reason kids start trying to go from point A to point B is to get something they see and want," Dr. Berger says.
A Head Start Perhaps the most crucial preparations for mobility, however, take place between your child's ears. The ability to crawl, explains Richard Restak, M.D., a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist in Washington, D.C., and author of The Secret Life of the Brain (Joseph Henry, 2001), can be traced to a baby's subcortex, the area of the brain that controls automatic, primitive behavior. With each new experience, your child's brain "builds connections between cells and expands, just like a flower opening," Dr. Restak says. Crawling, which generally begins at 6 to 9 months, is a reflection of this growth. (That doesn't mean, however, that a child who doesn't crawl before walking has a developmental impairment; see "Crawling Concerns," on the next page, to learn more.)
A sense of confidence that you love him also helps your child crawl. "Your baby needs to know you'll be waiting for him when he comes back," Dr. Berger explains.