When it comes to motor milestones, the ones we seem to recall with perfect clarity are the quote-unquote “BIG ONES,” like a child taking their first steps, or a baby rolling over for the first time.
But crawling is one major milestone that can be overlooked. It’s like the sequel in an epic trilogy, often just seen as a setup for the finale (in this case, the big “W” – walking). If you don’t look too closely, crawling seems like just the awkward in-between phase, where they’re not really infants anymore, but they aren’t quite toddlers yet either.
Well, we’re here to tell you that crawling is much more than just a filler episode in your child’s development!
Here are some things you should know about crawling, why it’s so important, and what you can do to encourage your little one as they start this exciting road trip of motor skill development!
Laying the Groundwork
Babies don’t just go from zero to crawling in 6 months flat – a lot of preparation goes into a young one’s motor skills leading up to the milestone achievement of actually crawling.
Interestingly, today’s youngest generation is reaching this milestone and other motor milestones a little later than previous generations. With greater understanding and awareness of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) came a campaign for children to sleep exclusively on their backs, especially during infancy.
However, all this extra time a child spends on their back seems to have contributed to a slight delay in what has been the typical timeline in learning to crawl, pull up, and walk, among other gross motor skills. This is one reason that tummy time is very, very important for our younglings.
Encouraging children to spend time on their bellies while they play during waking hours helps them to develop strength in their core, neck, arms, and hands, since one of the first things a child must master during tummy time is the ability to support and control their head and neck movements.
Babies can also use tummy time to learn how to roll over, and in fact, many little ones prefer to roll for a long time before they work on crawling. Why crawl when they can roll to whatever they want?
Once a baby does decide it’s time to crawl, one of the first things they might do is push up to all fours, hold up that little head, and switch between supporting their weight on their hands and on their knees. That’s right, they stay in one place and just rock, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. This bouncy exercise is a clear precursor to crawling, and kiddos may stay in this phase for quite a while before they actually attempt any forward momentum.
Sometimes, kiddos have to go backwards before they go forward. Pre-crawlers often learn to push through their arms before they get the leg work of crawling figured out, and this often leads to a child motoring backwards for a while before they get the hang of it all. They might get frustrated by this phase, so they’ll need lots of encouragement – and the occasional manual relocation – until they get their navigation tools adjusted.
Once a child really gets moving, crawling takes many forms. Every baby has their own unique style, and there isn’t just one right way to crawl!
Some little ones work one side a little harder than the other. These kiddos bend the same knee every time and then extend their other leg to push forward off the foot or toe, rather than alternating between legs and staying on their knees. It’s perfectly effective in getting them where they need to go!
In general, as long as both sides are somewhat involved in crawling, no red flags are necessary. However, if you notice that your little one drags one side ineffectively along when crawling, or never supports any weight on one side, it might be time to talk to a pediatrician and check in on things.
The army crawl is the style of choice for some little ones. Rather than going to all the trouble of getting up onto their knees, these kiddos propel themselves along on their bellies using their arms and elbows. Watch out! These little G.I. Joes and Janes are super strong, and they can be fast too!
Some babies go for a style that’s somewhere between full-on army style and the conventional idea of crawling. This style, known as creeping, is typified by keeping the belly elevated above the floor while moving forward on elbows and knees or toes. Although the word “creeping” can have connotations of moving slowly, don’t be fooled – these babies can motor.
The typical style of crawling, probably the most popular among infants today and for hundreds of years, is the classic hands and knees style, alternating using opposite hand-and-foot coordination to rocket forward at all speeds.
So Why Is It So Important?
The developmental benefits of crawling go far beyond simply the physical. There is neurological involvement in crawling, as well as development of vision and cognitive patterns, in addition to the obvious gross motor skills they are honing.
The physical benefits of crawling are many. Crawling involves the use of bilateral coordination, which simply means that both sides of the body are working in harmony. Typical cross-crawl patterning means that the right-arm-and-left-leg alternate with the left-arm-and-right-leg to crawl.
In this type of crawling, not only are babies using both sides of their body, but also both sides of their brain! To engage in cross-crawl patterning, both hemispheres in a young one’s brain must communicate and exchange information at a rapid clip to ensure success. These cerebral interstates, if you will, are the same ones that nerve and motor impulses will later use to master more complex activities such as walking and running.
Crawling also enhances a baby’s internal balance and equilibrium, and develops muscles and strength in the spine, abdomen, legs, arms, hands, and joints. There are sensory benefits as well, since a baby must use the body to counteract gravity when crawling, which will stimulate the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
The vestibular system is that sensory system that runs through your inner ear, dealing with balance and spatial orientation. This system helps the body coordinate movement with balance.
The proprioceptive system, in a nutshell, is how the human body senses itself. Proprioception can be viewed as a fancy, somewhat involved way to describe body awareness. Involving the joints and tendons in a person’s body, proprioception is how we know the amount of effort and strength we are putting into a task, and the relative position of our various body parts at any given moment.
Visually, when young ones begin to crawl, they also begin to develop optical convergence, when the eyes work together to see an object, and to judge how big or how far away it is. Babies are gathering lots of data about measurements and distance when learning to crawl, and they will use these early calculations as a foundation to build on in vision and depth perception later on.
The cognitive benefits of crawling are also essential to future development. A child who gains mobility through crawling, at whatever age, now has the ability to take risks and explore. Exploration, as I’m sure you’ll remember from previous posts, is absolutely the key to a child’s learning process!
Underneath their hands and knees, crawling infants will discover new textures and temperatures, obstacles and sensations. This all contributes to how they perceive the outside world, and their own reactions and sense of agency within that world. Even at such young ages, children are already beginning to develop confidence and decision-making patterns, and crawling accelerates the development of those tools.
Babies are relentless explorers. As soon as your child begins to show interest in independent mobility, BABY-PROOF ALL THE THINGS.
Patience Is a Virtue
Every child develops at their own pace. There is no need to push your child to start crawling or walking before they show interest. The best thing we can do for our little ones is encourage them and give them the foundational skills they need, so that when they want to get moving, they can!
Even the youngest kiddo has a personality and preferences, just like us big kids. They may prefer to observe from a distance or lounge around for a few weeks or months before they take the initiative and start getting themselves from point A to point B.
And that’s all right! Let them take their time. Your only job is to love and support them while they work up to it! They’ll be racing around in their favorite crawling style and getting into all kinds of trouble before you know it.
On your marks, get set, GO!
 Pathways.org. Motor Skills: Major Milestones. 2018. Web. 27 April 2018. <https://pathways.org/topics-of-development/motor-skills-2/milestones/>.
 Sañudo-Diez, Bernardo. Baby Crawling: How Important It Really Is. 1 December 2008. Web. 27 April 2018. <http://icpa4kids.org/Wellness-Articles/baby-crawling-how-important-it-really-is/All-Pages.html>.
 Zero to Three. Steps Toward Crawling. 19 February 2016. Web. 27 April 2018. <https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/202-steps-toward-crawling>.