The onset of crawling is a major milestone in infant motor development that also heralds a dramatic and pervasive set of changes in psychological functioning. Crawling represents the culmination of a long and complex struggle to overcome and then exploit the effects of gravity from the prone position. Once acquired, independent mobility offers many new opportunities to act on one’s intentions, to explore the world, and to profit from the numerous encounters that are now possible with that world.
The terms crawling and creeping are often used interchangeably, although each refers to a distinct pattern of limb motions. Crawling is a pattern of prone locomotion in which the abdomen is in contact with the surface of support, whereas creeping is a pattern of prone locomotion in which the abdomen is above the surface of support and the weight of the body is supported by either the forearms and knees, the hands and knees, or the hands and feet. The term creeping is not particularly fashionable in the contemporary literature. Researchers prefer to use the terms belly crawling and hands-and-knees crawling to refer respectively to patterns of prone locomotion in which the abdomen is either in contact with the surface of support or not in contact with the surface of support.
The development of crawling is a complex process that involves qualitative shifts in the patterns of interlimb coordination used to propel the body and quantitative improvements in speed and efficiency. As many as 23 stages have been identified in the development of prone locomotion, and 25 patterns of interlimb coordination have been identified for propulsion. Although there are large individual differences in the rate at which crawling develops and in the patterns of limb motion used while on the belly, once infants adopt the hands-and-knees posture, they quickly converge on a diagonal gait in which the contralateral arm and knee move together (e.g., left arm–right knee followed by right arm–left knee). The diagonal gait is thought to be the most biomechanically efficient and stable way to move on four limbs because it ensures a wide base of support and minimizes medial-to-lateral and forward-backward shifts in the center of gravity. It should be noted that even though the diagonal gait is thought to be the most efficient form of prone locomotion, moving in the prone position is mechanically and metabolically less efficient than moving in the upright position, although the differences between the two modes of locomotion are larger for adults than for children.
Researchers once thought that the development of crawling was predominantly a function of neuromuscular maturation. However, it is now recognized that many factors, particularly opportunities for practice, play an important role in crawling acquisition. For example, the age at which crawling is achieved is influenced by season of birth (with infants born in the winter months tending to crawl earlier than infants born in the summer months), the extent to which infants are wrapped in heavy bedclothes, the amount of time infants spend in a prone or supine position, and the degree to which a particular cultural group values the onset of crawling. With respect to the latter factor, infants reared in cultures that promote upright postures tend to crawl later (or not at all) compared with infants raised in Western cultures, and in some cultures crawling is prohibited because it is viewed as primitive and demeaning. In contrast, the onset of crawling is accelerated with training in cultures that value independence from the mother.
Finally, the onset of crawling has been linked to major changes in psychological functioning, including the emergence of wariness of heights, the ability to search for hidden objects, the use of more sophisticated strategies to code one’s position in space, the ability to use more spatially delimited patterns of optical flow for postural control, and the ability to understand the referential gestural communication of others. Researchers are now attempting to determine whether the acquisition of crawling is causally related to these phenomena or whether it is simply a maturational forecaster of these important psychological changes.
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