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Learning to Crawl

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.

Important Developments

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.

Playing With Baby: Get Moving
Playing With Baby: Get Moving

Because it may take weeks for your child to become strong enough to lift his tummy, on his first attempts (which can occur at as early as 4 months), "he may look like he's trying to squeeze under a fence on his belly, with his hands making swimming motions," says Charles A. Scott, M.D., a Medford, New Jersey, pediatrician and vice president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (The layperson's term for this is "creeping.") Babies may also crawl in reverse at first: "Infants develop body strength from the head down, so their arms are initially stronger than their legs," Dr. Berger says. "Many babies lift up by their arms and push off, then end up going backward."

Your child's style may remain unconventional. Some kids sit on their rear and scoot, others roll, and still others continue to crawl backward. Why? "If a child finds a way that's effective, he may not be motivated to refine his technique," Dr. Berger says.

Babyproofing Pointers

Before giving your baby floor time, cover all electrical sockets, put soft bumpers around sharp table and desk edges, lock drawers and cabinets, and make sure furniture is secure (bookcases, for example, should be bolted to the wall) and that the pull cords of window blinds are out of reach. Then scan the floor for buttons, pennies, and other choking hazards.

Once you've made a clean sweep of the area, let your child explore. As long as you provide opportunities for him to learn, your baby will go far.

Crawling Concerns

If your little one crawls later -- or not at all -- don't worry. "Some babies are placid," Dr. Berger explains. "Others concentrate first on learning to talk." Still other children, she notes, simply start to walk one day, without ever crawling.

In the case of some babies, not learning to crawl may be an unintended consequence of the Back to Sleep campaign. Launched in 1994 to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, it advised putting babies to sleep sunny-side up. But many parents and caregivers now leave infants on their back almost all day; and without spending time on their stomach, babies have difficulty mastering the moves needed for crawling.

Be sure to give your child regular tummy time. Dr. Scott suggests placing your baby on her stomach whenever you're around to supervise. If your child objects, put her facedown several times a day for just a few minutes, gradually increasing the length of these sessions. And if she still doesn't crawl? Mention it at her next checkup, but stay calm. There's no proof that kids who skip crawling have impaired muscle strength or other developmental problems down the road.

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