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Ready, Set, Crawl!

Amelia Hunt started crawling at 7 months, but not in the traditional way. She had her own style: "Sitting up, she would slide across the floor on her bottom," says her mother, Gayle, of Hoboken, New Jersey. Amelia soon abandoned this for a new--albeit less efficient--method. She'd lie flat on her belly and move backward by pushing off with her hands. "Unfortunately, since she couldn't see where she was going, she often got stuck under the couch," explains Hunt.

Like Amelia, most babies will try a variety of crawling styles, from the butt scoot and backward inchworm to the bear walk (with arms and legs straight and bottom in the air, she'll "walk" on hands and feet) to the leapfrog (on all fours, she pushes off with her legs and practically jumps forward). Eventually, though, most kids settle on the standard crawl. "By 9 months, Amelia was getting around on her hands and knees like a pro," says Hunt.

The First Moves

Seeing your child make those initial attempts at crawling should make you proud. After all, your little baby--who couldn't even hold his head up six months ago--has developed the strength and balance necessary to move. "Before crawling, a baby must first lose his infant reflexes--such as flailing his limbs when he's startled--and learn how to coordinate his arms and legs, which is no small feat," says Parents advisor Steven Shelov, M.D., chairman and vice president of Maimonides Infants and Children's Hospital of Brooklyn.

In addition, your little one can't bust a move until he wins an important battle with gravity. "You've got to remember that when a baby is born, he suddenly experiences a pull of gravity ten times stronger than that in the womb," explains Jody Jensen, Ph.D., associate professor in kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, in Austin. "Being able to crawl means your child has learned to resist this pull of gravity while developing the strength to lift up from the ground."

Your little one may move backward at first. But with time, he will discover that by shifting his weight from one side to the other, he can coordinate his arms and legs and propel himself forward. (You'll probably notice that your baby spends the weeks--or months--before he actually crawls rocking back and forth on his hands and knees.) Although most babies start creeping between 7 and 10 months, it's not unusual for a child to make his first move much later than this. Experts believe chubbier babies crawl later since it's harder to push up onto all fours and drag their extra body weight. And younger siblings may lack the motivation to move if an older sister or brother is constantly carrying them around or bringing toys within their reach.

Lending a Helping Hand

Crawling is much like a puzzle that your baby needs to figure out on her own, but there are ways in which you can encourage her. The most important is to schedule plenty of supervised tummy time every day starting at 3 months. Researchers have found that the Back to Sleep Campaign--which encourages parents to put their infants to sleep on their back to prevent SIDS--may be causing delays in crawling. Without some time spent on her stomach, your baby is less likely to experiment with pushing off the ground. Put her on the floor for several five- to ten-minute sessions while you watch. (Tucking a small, rolled blanket under her chest may make her more comfortable.) Or try placing her prone on your chest while you lie on the floor.

Another way to help her start moving is to get down on the floor with her regularly and put toys just out of her reach. After all, if everything she wants is always easily accessible, she won't have an incentive to try to push, pull, or drag herself forward.

Watch Out, World!

Your baby's newfound mobility isn't just exciting, it also changes his perspective on the world and his place in it. "Once your baby starts to move, he realizes that he can go after things that rolled under a couch or chase his mommy," says Jayne Singer, Ph.D., clinical director of Parent-Infant Mental Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "It's truly exciting and empowering for a baby."

It can also be bittersweet for you. While it's fun to watch your baby crawl, it's also the first sign that he doesn't need you quite as much. His newfound mobility also means he's more likely to get injured. "People underestimate a baby's speed and strength," says Steve Weinstein, president of the International Association for Child Safety. "Keep in mind that most accidents happen when parents are just six feet away from their child." If you haven't already babyproofed your house, do it now. Put baby gates at the top and bottom of staircases, and move houseplants--which can be a choking hazard--off the floor.

This is also a good time to introduce the first stages of discipline. Now that your little one has started exploring, it's your responsibility to firmly but gently tell him no when he gets too close to an electrical outlet or won't stop harassing the dog. Of course, don't let anxiety about his safety get the best of you. "Smile and cheer him on as he moves across the floor," says Dr. Singer. "Your enthusiasm will encourage him to keep trying new things."

A Cause for Concern

Babies really do crawl in all different ways. But alert your pediatrician if your child's crawl appears asymmetrical; for example, he pushes off with only one arm or he drags one side of his body as he cruises across the floor. "In rare cases it can be a sign of cerebral palsy," says Dr. Shelov. "But most likely, this just means your baby has found a peculiar way of getting around."

When Baby Won't Crawl

You've been waiting and waiting for your little one to start creeping across the floor, yet she seems perfectly happy to stay put. What's the deal? In about 5 to 7 percent of kids, crawling never happens. Instead, they go straight from sitting, to pulling up, to standing, and then walking. "Parents need to know that this is perfectly normal. It doesn't mean that your child isn't developmentally on target," says Dr. Jensen.

Most likely, your baby's temperament is playing a role, since placid babies are often content to stay in one place. Or your little one could be so focused on trying to communicate and say her first words that she's less inclined to test herself physically. However, talk to your doctor if your 1-year-old isn't mobile at all and was also delayed with other physical milestones such as lifting her head and sitting upright. He'll want to rule out problems like low muscle tone, and he may have her vision tested--since babies who can't see objects at a distance don't have the motivation to go after them.

See How They Scoot

A quick snapshot of four of the most common crawling techniques.

Standard: The classic crawl: She alternates a hand on one side and a knee on the other to get around.

Crab: By bending one knee and extending the other leg, she slowly propels herself sideways.

Commando: Lying flat on his belly, he manages to drag himself forward using his forearms.

Roll: Before they are strong enough to get up on all fours, some babies roll to get where they want to go.