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It's hard to think of a more iconic baby image than that of an adorable infant crawling across the floor, arms and legs perfectly coordinated, in pursuit of a toy or the family dog. The reality is that crawling can take many forms, and some kids even skip this phase altogether, maybe preferring to go right to pulling up and cruising. Here's everything you need to know about this exciting stage of newfound mobility.
When do babies start crawling?
Although the average age to begin crawling is nine months, Joni Redlich, DPT, of Kid PT in Somerville, New Jersey, says that there is a large variation that's considered developmentally appropriate.
"Like with everything with babies, there is a huge range, so generally between eight and 10 months we want to see the kids mobile in some way, whether that's the classic hands-and-knees crawl or some of variation, like army crawling on their bellies," she says. But before baby can learn to crawl, she'll need to master an important milestone: Sitting without support.
"As babies get more comfortable with sitting, they might lean forward to reach for a toy, so that naturally leads to being on hands and knees, so they may sort of rock back and forth, and that often progresses into what we think of as crawling," says Catherine Workman, MD, a developmental pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
How does crawling affect child development?
More than anything, crawling represents freedom, says Redlich.
"From a cognitive point of view, becoming mobile is such a huge thing. It's usually the first time they are getting to actively explore their environment, versus someone having to carry them from point A to point B," says Redlich.
They also start to "gain a sense of independence from their parent or caregiver, as they move away from them and then move back," adds Workman.
But according to both Redlich and Workman, a child also gains many developmental benefits as she navigates her way across the floor.
"Having the arms bear weight develops the arches of the hands, which helps later on with handwriting and fine motor skills, and shoulder stability, which comes from the pushing, is another big one," says Redlich.
Crawling also helps develop vision skills and gives babies important "proprioceptive input," which Workman explains is feedback given to joints and muscles — in this case, the contact between the floor and the hands or knees. "This helps them develop spatial awareness, or the sense of where their body is in space," she says.
Finally, crawling helps develop "core stability and coordination, because you're using your opposite arm and leg at the same time, and there's a lot of rhythm and timing that goes with that," says Redlich.
How can you help your baby start crawling?
Both Workman and Redlich emphasized that plenty of floor time, specifically tummy time, was the most important thing parents can do to encourage babies to crawl.
"Babies need to move against gravity, and see, by trial and error, when I go for that toy, what happens? A lot of times they start moving by a happy accident, like they lean one way to get something and they roll over. If they don't have those opportunities, those happy accidents can't happen," says Redlich.
Some infants hate being placed on their stomachs, but Workman says you can help alleviate this by starting tummy time as soon as you get home from hospital. "Every time you do a diaper change, put them on their tummy for a few moments, so when they are really young, they get used to it," she says.
Once baby is on the floor, encourage her to move by putting toys slightly out of reach. "As parents, having the patience to let them go through that trial and error process and not jump in can be so hard, and sometimes even I have to sit on my own hands, but it's about helping them develop that persistence from the start, like, let me try again and see if it works," says Redlich. Parents should also be willing to get into the action themselves. "If a child is resisting tummy time, try getting down on the floor with them and spending some time face-to-face," says Workman.
What are the different types of crawling?
There are several different types of crawling, as Workman described:
- Commando or army crawl: Baby drags his body, and the belly makes contact with the floor.
- Bear crawl: Baby keeps arms and legs straight.
- Crab crawl: Baby moves with either one or both legs tucked under.
- Bottom scoot: Baby uses hands to push across the floor while sitting upright on their bottom.
Should I be alarmed if my baby skips crawling?
Some kids either scoot on their bottoms, or just go immediately to pulling up, standing, cruising and walking. Parents shouldn't be nervous as long as their child's development is progressing well in other areas.
"We look at the big picture and think about how the other pieces are coming along," says Redlich. "You can encourage crawling through tunnels and playing animal walk games, or taking movement classes, so they can still get the sensory and the strengthening components," she says.
What are the signs of developmental delays?
Although there is a wide range of normal for all stages of infant development, there are certain things that could indicate low muscle tone, coordination problems, or other developmental delays that could benefit from a referral to a physical or occupational therapist. For example, therapists and doctors aren't overly concerned if a child is crawling in an asymmetrical way, but they still want to see equal strength and muscle tone on both sides of the body.
"We really only worry about asymmetry if we see it in other positions, like when they are going from sitting to being on their belly, or if they are holding toys, if they aren't using both hands equally," says Redlich.
By nine months, your baby should also be, according to Workman, "sitting or making good progress towards it." And even if they haven't mastered the classic crawl, Workman wants to see babies "interacting with their environment, making some efforts to engage with toys around them, and trying to move around and get to things."