Crawling is crucial for development

Dr. Carl Gillman, Living Healthy · Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Proper brain development in infants depends quite a bit on how long they crawl. While genetics is certainly a factor, and nutrition also plays a role, learning to crawl in a “cross-crawl” pattern may be one of the most important pieces to building a bright, coordinated child.

Newborns move pretty much in flailing reflexes while on their backs with little coordination in their movements. These movements are important simple motions that are being repeatedly practiced, such as gripping or flexing and extending the legs. These motions must become streamlined and controllable before the baby moves to the next set of tasks, like rolling over and lifting the head.

Somewhere between 5 to 14 months old, when the bones, joints and ligaments have developed sufficiently, babies begin to crawl instinctively. Being able to keep their head up and soon to push themselves up with their arms and later onto their knees protects them from suffocating while in a belly down position and allows them to learn to crawl.

Many of us understand the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain and vice-versa. The importance of learning to cross-crawl is in developing brain coordination. When a baby must coordinate the movement of one arm and the opposite leg, a great deal of mental coordination must be learned. Nerve pathways between the two sides of the baby’s brain must be made to make this new and more efficient way of crawling happen. Many more pathways must be made before the cross-crawling is a smooth motion that the baby can keep doing for longer distances. These nerve pathways are the beginnings of smooth coordinated movement, which later translates into overall physical and mental coordination. If a baby tries to, or is allowed to short cut this process, or “skip” a step, there can be long-term ramifications.

For example, a baby who spends little time crawling, and starts standing and trying to walk right away will be sacrificing later physical and mental acuity. Learning and sports activities will be much more difficult, generally speaking. Difficulty learning to read, complex movements, and even social skills can be found as later deficits if the child does not engrain the cross-crawl. Skipping any phase of early development is not a good idea, because like any skill, and especially a foundational skill, it must be practiced.

Each phase of mental development in children is tied to a set of physical skills learning. These are also linked to specific areas of the child’s brain and its development. For instance, the early movement I mentioned above occurs in the time where the spinal cord is undergoing rapid growth. Later, the area of the brain called the pons (an area containing some cranial nerves and supplies nerves to the cerebellum where smooth motion is coordinated), is developing during the time the baby begins to crawl. But, evidence shows developments are also linked. Improvement in hearing, for instance, will also help improvements in other skills like seeing or manual dexterity. Likewise, spending too little time in any phase will stop the phase from concluding and too little development is the result. Babies reach their milestones at their own pace, so don’t rush them. There is a necessary process going on, and every step is important.

This means those baby walkers are a bad idea. Are these asking too much of a developing brain? Yes. It’s like giving motorbikes to kids once they master the tricycle. By the way, the American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed a ban on them because of the 14,000-plus injuries they cause every year.

Speaking of injuries, for adults who have been injured or are suffering a long-term physical dysfunction, reapplying the cross-crawl patterning can help re-establish smooth coordinated motion. Usually, this is done by having them march, but in some cases where the march doesn’t quite work well, I’ll have the adult get into the crawl posture and make a few cross-crawls to trigger the brain to coordinate the march better. Skipping this step can prevent a full return to long-term proper movement and leaves the possibility of re-injury.

Encouraging your baby to crawl and to cross-crawl, specifically, will help him or her later in life. The old adage is true; you must learn to crawl before you learn to walk. Encouraging a child to walk too soon is a mistake. As I mentioned above, learning difficulties and lack of physical coordination may be the result. It seems odd, but helping your child crawl will give him a leg up in the years to come.

Dr. Carl Gillman can be reached at his office, West Liberty Chiropractic Center, at 627-4787. He is available to speak to your class or organization on subjects related to health.
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