Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

January 17, 2017

Crawling Part 1: The Benefits

By: Colleen Donley, PT, DPT

As an early intervention therapist, I often start working with little ones around their first birthday because they are not crawling yet. More times than not, I hear parents ask if we really should address crawling because walking is the ultimate goal and can’t we just start there. Despite popular belief, crawling on hands and knees is still a major motor milestone!

So why do we really want to push crawling on hands and knees? The benefits of crawling extend far beyond the gross motor domain. Crawling on hands and knees stimulates virtually every area of development from gross motor to cognitive, and even, to speech and language.

Here are my Top 10 reasons why not to skip crawling:

1. Development of arches in the hand: All babies are born with fat pads in their hands. While these pudgy hands are super cute, the fat pads need to disintegrate in order for muscles of the hand to develop. Weight bearing through the hands is the most effective way to help those fat pads disintegrate while encouraging all the tiny, but important, muscles in the hand to develop.

2. Integration of primitive reflexes: Maintaining and crawling in a hands and knees position provides input all throughout baby’s body to help primitive reflexes integrate. Two reflexes are key players during crawling- the symmetric tonic neck reflex (STNR) and the asymmetric tonic neck reflex (ATNR). ATNR is present shortly after birth and is seen when baby lays on their back and turns their head to one side, that same-side arm will extend out to the side while the opposite-side arm will bend at the elbow and come up to the shoulder. We see the STNR emerge around this time and help with crawling. With the STNR, baby’s arms will extend in response to neck extension while the legs will bend. This is seen very easily when baby is on hands and knees and looking ahead.

3. Development of visual system: The visual system actually develops in multiple ways with crawling. Baby will learn to keep their eyes fixed while moving and move separate from their motion. As baby is moving, they must be able to stabilize their gaze on an object and hold it steady or else they will just see blurry images as their weight bounces from side to side.

4. Development of the thumb: Shifting weight from hand to hand when crawling helps elongate the space between the thumb and the index finger. This creates more room for toys to be held with maturing grasp patterns. It also promotes development of the muscles of the thumb.

5. Trunk strength for basic activities: With all this hands and knees positioning, the belly is lifted off the ground and muscles of the trunk and core are in constant contraction/relaxation, or co-contraction. Developing muscles of the trunk have massive implications on feeding, talking, and play skills in sitting.

6. Proximal stability: Crawling helps strength and stabilize the muscles close to the center of the body, like neck, shoulders, hips, and back. The muscles close to the joints that help keep them strong and stable are given constant input to contract and thus strengthen. As these joints and muscles strengthen, baby has a stronger base to move and learn new motor skills, both gross and fine.

7. Motor planning: As baby begins to move more in their environment, they will undoubtedly encounter many obstacles. Obstacles can come in all shapes and sizes and can be put in baby’s way intentionally or not. The brain will be stimulated to help baby problem solve how to move around these obstacles. This is one of the first times we see baby begin to motor plan movement strategies, but it is just the very beginning of motor planning.

8. Bilateral coordination:  Remember up top where we talked about what reciprocal crawling looks like? Hint: right arm and left leg move at the same time. This shows us that both sides of the brain and working at the same time and communicating. Activating both sides of the brain at the same time is huge for cognitive development.

9. Exploration of environment: Tied in with motor planning, crawling on hands and knees provides baby with a new independent form of mobility and allows them the opportunity to explore their environment. Babies still learn best at this stage through exploration and experimentation! Let them have the run of the place and see what they get into. So break out those baby gates while encouraging exploration!

10. Of course the best reason for any new skill is to give baby new opportunities for play! We begin to see expansion of baby’s concept of cause and effect with crawling. They begin to engage in more social play, such as peekaboo or hide and seek, now that they can move and find a familiar face around the corner or behind the sofa. Babies also begin to grow their reciprocal interaction skills as they play ball and chase after rolled balls.

Not sure if what baby is doing looks right? Having trouble or feeling frustrated in helping baby master crawling? Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 on crawling for what typical crawling looks like and how to make it easier to master!

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