Crawling is Cultural | Milestones

Baby bear crawling backwards with head on floor
Babies are weird.

When I was a baby my crawling style was the reverse inch-worm. I would roll onto my back, and scoot my butt toward my head, arching my back, then slide my head along the floor to propel myself forward. I rubbed all the hair off the back of my head and it didn’t really grow back until I was 2-3 years old. As a nanny I’ve seen all kinds of crawling styles because the vast majority of babies are expected to crawl until they learn to walk, though I have known babies who skip crawling altogether, pulling themselves up to standing and walking around while hanging on to furniture and people. 

Cinematic photo of a model with heavy make-up holding an infant looking out of a window.
Smug Linda and her more highly evolved offspring.

As an American, crawling is considered a developmental milestone in my culture. Parents are encouraged to invest in educational toys, learn special exercises for their baby, to provide a large, clean, baby-proofed environment for supervised tummy time, all with the goal of getting their baby to crawl (preferably before Smug Linda from Book Babies kid does). It is accepted as fact that babies need a lot of support to learn how to crawl and an environment to practice crawling in– and a failure to provide this could result in a development delay which could impact the rest of a baby’s life.

In the United States, babies are frequently left on the floor surrounded by brightly colored, often electronic, toys intended to speed physical or intellectual development. This floor time is considered important for exercising baby’s arms, legs, neck, and trunk muscles so they can learn to lift their heads and roll over, and to finally crawl.

Beyond the U.S., in many western cultures crawling is considered an essential developmental milestone required for everything from development of depth perception, independence, and later walking– Sunil Agrawak’s writing in the journal for Mechanical Engineering (an article on creating robots to allow disabled infants the experience of crawling) said, 

Young baby clings to a Roomba which drags it around room.
Crawling robot and vacuum. $$

“In the process of independent locomotion, infants undergo major changes in perception, cognition, and social and emotional development. Studies have shown that the rhythmic pattern involved in moving arms and legs in a coordinated manner impacts the way the developing brain grows and the ease with which it learns. In many ways, crawling is what helps turn babies into children.” 

Agrawak, 2011

Another inventor, this one of a crawling garment designed to provide friction for babies learning to crawl on hard surface flooring, had this to say about the importance of creating the perfect environment for crawling so that the baby isn’t discouraged: 

Baby in snow suit struggles to crawl on hard surface floor.
Rare sighting of a domesticated starfish.

“[…] there is an increased risk of the infant becoming a non-crawler. This in turn provides an increased risk in the child developing Neurological Delay which can lead to behavioral problems and learning challenges being identified in children of school-going age. This can and will have a huge impact on the rest of the child’s development. […] Neurological development is sequential and it is vital that infants are provided with the right environment to support this. The impact of missing a stage in early development is hugely significant. Not only does crawling benefit neurological development, but it also allows for social and emotional development of the infant.” 

Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week, 2016
Unhappy woman pushes stroller
They’ll never learn to walk without a Bugaboo

Other articles suggested that even delayed crawling could be a sign of anything from autism to cerebral palsy while giving tips to ensure your baby learns to crawl asap, suggesting lots of supervised tummy time, exercises, or special garments and toys. Babies who “learn” to crawl early are celebrated. And if you regularly use infant carriers you might have heard the incredibility original jibe, “they’ll never learn to walk if you carry them all the time” (which is positively delightful when coming from someone pushing their kid in a stroller) but it underscores the cultural concern that a child who is carried a lot isn’t getting adequate floor time to learn how to crawl and therefore how to walk.

What would happen if a mum did carry her baby all the time and never provided an opportunity for floor time or encouraged her baby to crawl? Would she end up with a child unable to walk independently, with no depth perception, with learning disabilities and behavioral problems? 

Allowing infants to crawl around is a relatively recent trend even in my own culture. Less than a century ago, an infant care manual published by the Children’s Bureau stressed the need to keep babies off the floor for fears of drafts and dirt, not to mention the dangers of fireplaces. Throughout Western history crawling was often seen as animalistic, and along with other animalistic behaviors, the role of a good caregiver was to break the child of (or prevent) such bad habits.

And there are cultures today that do not allow infants to crawl– and it seems to have little effect on their development. It’s likely that developmental milestones in the first year are over-stressed, especially in the United States, where parents are encouraged to do everything in their power to get their baby crawling asap. In a study on the developmental delays caused by the Back to Sleep program in the 90’s, the researchers found that despite significant delays in rolling over, sitting, and crawling in the supine sleepers, all the infants learned to walk at the same time. “Because there does not seem to be a difference in attainment of the walking skills or of some of the 18-month-old milestones, this difference in milestone attainment may be transient.” (Davis, et al, 1998).

Baby bear crawling across hard wood floor in a diaper

Let’s hop around to some different cultures and time periods to see what they have to say about crawling to put it in perspective.

Beng, Côte d’Ivoire, 1990’s

In the early 1990’s researcher Alma Gottlieb stayed with the Beng people of Cote de Ivory in western Africa. In her book, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From, she described their ideas about crawling.

Beng babies are allowed to crawl, but they need to crawl with bellies up.  “[…] creeping or slithering with the belly on the ground, rather than crawling with stomach raised, is considered unacceptable by Beng parents, who do all they can to reorient a baby who seems inclined to slither rather than crawl” (Gottlieb, 129).

This slithering crawl is considered a bad omen, “tɛtɛ” can include infants whose development is not in line with cultural norms, for example, an infant with teeth before age 1 or crawling with belly on the ground, or crawling later than other babies their age. These kinds of bad omens are associated with death of infant’s relatives. 

To encourage crawling, a beng mother may locate a left-handed person who then finds a shrub growing on a mound. Both left handed people and hills are considered to contain mystical powers, though in opposite directions– inauspicicious and auspicious, respectively. The left-handed person uproots the plant and gives it to the baby’s mother, who crushes it well with chili pepper and uses it as an enema for her infant. “Perhaps their combined powers are seen as having an effect on accelerating a baby’s motor development.” (Gottlieb, 126)

Beng babies get dirty crawling in the dirt but they are bathed twice a day until they learn to walk independently. There is a concern about a sickness called “Dirt Cough” but it’s not from dirt on the ground but rather unseen pollution from the touch of an adult who had sex the previous night and not yet bathed themselves.

Central Anatolia, Turkey 1980’s

From Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb’s book, A World of Babies, they create imagined child care manuals for different cultures and time periods based on historical or enthographic research.

“Most of the time babies are held by someone; we don’t usually let them crawl around very much. Indeed, I am not sure all babies even learn to crawl. They are hardly ever put down on the ground outside, because it is just too dirty and they might pick up something dirty and put it in their mouth. In the house, you can let them sit and crawl around on the floor from time to time because the floors are swept clean several times a day. They will find all kinds of things to play with, but you must be careful– I have seen babies playing with knives and scissors, and that can be very dangerous.”

DeLoache and Gottlieb, 2006

Rajputs of Khalapur, India 1960’s

In the Six Cultures collection on child rearing, psychologist Leigh Minturn and anthropologist John T. Hitchcock were part of the Cornell University’s Cornell India Project. In their ethnography they describe attitudes about crawling in Rajput culture of Khalapur (southwest of Mumbai) in the 1960’s:

“A baby spends little time crawling. Sometimes, unattended, he may set off across the courtyard on his own, but someone usually grabs before he gets far. Since the women do most of their work on the floor, the food dishes, grain dishes, and so on are usually lying somewhere. This makes a crawling baby something of a nuisance, although there is little that can hurt him except the hearth fire and an occasional spilling-wheel spindle or knife. If the infant is crawling toward some area where it is not supposed to be, or playing with some object which it is not supposed to have, an adult simply removes either the baby or the object rather than attempting to coax the baby to give up the object or to crawl away.”  

Minturn and Hitchcock, “Six Cultures“, 1963

And if the baby is being stubborn about getting into trouble, such as returning to something they’ve been removed from adults will use physical punishment, like slapping the baby.

Omlec Civilization, Central America

In doing research for this subject I looked for the earliest depiction of infant crawling in art history that I could find and honestly, there isn’t much, but there are the Olmec infant statues, one of which is crawling. The Olmec culture had a tradition of life-sized infant statues dating from 1200 to 800 bce, the civilization as a whole flourished between 1500-400 bce and are famous for the colossal stone head sculptures.

Olmec Crawling Baby, 1200-900 bce, on display at De Young Museum in San Fransico

It is unknown if the the infant statues represent an idealized form of infanthood or if they represent actual high-status infants. They are believed to have been used in effigy of real infants in sacrificial rituals, James Doyle of the The Met Museum writes, “In some cases the ceramic effigies may have served as substitutes for actual infants in a sacrificial or dedicatory ritual, as there is compelling evidence of Olmec infant sacrifice or ceremonial burials.” Sites containing infant statues made of wood or clay have been discovered also containing infant remains.

Child sacrifice is never a pleasant subject however, the fact is that the ancient Olmec civilization placed infancy in high regard, that infants were allowed to crawl, and the crawling stage of infancy was valued enough to be immortalized in their art. “The preoccupation of Olmec peoples with child-rearing and the mythological connections between the life cycles of infants and agriculture transcend time and space.”

Taira, Okinawa, Japan 1960’s

Another contributor to the Six Cultures collection is that of Thomas and Hatsumi Maretzki’s study of Taira on the northeast coast of Okinawa, in 1960’s Japan.

In this culture, infants are nearly always carried on the back of their siblings or grandmother, crawling is generally not allowed, because ain’t nobody got time for that. “In spite of the fact that he is capable of crawling or learning to crawl within the second half year of his life, he is kept on the back. He does not protest or clamor to be put down; he seems to prefer being carried to being left to crawl.” 

“Caretakers are too busy with work or play to let the child crawl about freely, so there is no crawling stage in Taira. Older siblings are too involved in play to sit and patiently watch a crawler.”  In fact, the only children who were allowed to crawl were those of wealthy fisherman’s wives, who didn’t have chores or work to do. They had the leisure to sit and watch their babies crawling.  “A mother who sits and plucks sweet potato leaves off the vines for hog feed works more efficiently with the baby on her back. Crawling around on the loose floorboards near the fire pit or over the edge of the raised floor, the child would require constant attention.” 

In this environment there was no floor time or ability to practice crawling, and certainly no encouragement from caregivers, yet the infants still knew how to crawl. There were many stories of infants taking off the moment they were removed from their strap carry, much to the horror of their caregivers:

A big sister playing with friends with baby strapped to back. The baby was tall enough that it could touch the ground with its feet and bounce, causing big sister to lose her balance while she was squatting to play. After unsuccessful attempts to get the baby to stop, the big sister unstrapped the baby and let it crawl. Another kid cried out that the baby had eaten dirt and the big sister, knowing she’d be severely punished for letting the baby crawl around and eat dirt, rushed over to flush out the baby’s mouth and strap it back to her back. 

ain't nobody got time for that meme

Another time, a mother was working with sharp bamboo and a knife to make baskets when an older sibling brought the baby in for nursing. The mother pushed away the sharp objects to feed the baby, when finished she put the baby down and called to child. But the child had run to get a drink. The baby went for the knife, the mother grabbed it away, then the baby went for the sharp bamboo– the mother has had quite enough of this bullsh*t and yelled at the kid to come get the baby on their back and to go play. 

Another kid put a baby down in the courtyard of grandmother’s house because it was the grandmother’s turn to carry the baby. While unsupervised the baby peed on the ground and then crawled around in the urine-mud. The grandmother came out to find the filthy baby she was disgusted that the child let the baby crawl, and upset that she had to bathe the baby before strapping it on her back and going about her day.

Baliense, Indonesia

Another entry in the World of Babies was from Bali, in Indonesia, a culture famous for never letting a baby touch the ground for the first 108 days after birth, when the Nyabutan ceremony is held marking the first time the babies feet touch the ground.

“During the day, your baby will be carried by someone most of the time, even after he or she can crawl; it is base for a baby to crawl on the ground like an animal. Hold the baby in your arms or in a sling around your body as you go about your daily business. Your infant can stay in the sling even while asleep, although you may want to pull the cloth over the child’s face. If you have put your child down to do some work, another person- your husband, a sibling, child caretaker, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or neighbor– should hold the child. Everyone loves to hold a baby.”

DeLoache and Gottlieb, 2006

Warlpiri of Central Desert Australia

Another from World of Babies, Sophia Peirroutsakos shares the advice and experience of Old-Law Warlpiri culture she gave to her granddaughter. The Warlpiri are an aboriginal culture living in the Central Desert in Australia.

“Before returning to your daily responsibilities [after birth], you will need something for carrying your infant. In my day, we used an oblong, bowl-like baby carrier carved from wood, called a parraja or a coolamon, lined with blankets. Shoulder straps attached to the ends allowed me to carry my baby comfortably along my side. I found this helpful as I did my chores.”

“You should hardly ever put your baby onto the ground; instead, you or another person should hold the baby most of the time. I find it unthinkable to leave your baby alone! If you are a young mother, other women should keep an eye on you to make sure you do not mishandle your baby.”

Sophia Peirroutsakos,”World of Babies”, 2006
“Collection of archival footage of the lives and traditions of Warlpiri people from Lajamanu, Central Australia (1979-2017).”

“Toward the end of the first year, babies begin crawling and walking, even if we could keep them in the wooden sling, they would have outgrown it. In the old days, at this point, it became difficult to bring the child along to search for food. Our husbands were often hunting during the day; in any case, they were not usually responsible for young boys or for girls of any age. Fortunately, we could count on our female relatives for help. When we needed to gather food, we could leave our child with our sisters, mothers, or grandmothers. Of course, there were times to reciprocate and look after their children while they collected food.”

ibid
Aborigines and their country / Charles P. Mountford. Rigby : Adelaide, 1969, p. 101, with caption: As baby’s cradle.

In this culture, crawling was discouraged in so much as leaving your baby on the ground was considered mistreatment but they recognize that at some point the child is going to be too big and active to be carried or otherwise prevented from crawling even though it presents a problem for foraging. So they use cooperative breeding, in which other members of the group care for each other’s children, taking time away from gathering food, to ensure everyone’s survival.

Wogeo, New Guinea

In Barbara Rogoff’s book, The Cultural Nature of Human Development, she describes the attitudes towards crawling and walking in Wogeo, New Guinea, and how cultural practices affect development of infant mobility.

“In some communities, walking sooner is valued; in others, it is not desired. In Wogeo, New Guinea, infants were not allowed to crawl and discouraged from walking until nearly 2 years of age so that they know how to take care of themselves and avoid dangers before moving about freely. An infant who showed an interest in moving about would be immediately picked up or put firmly in a corner. Toward the end of the second year, children learned to walk well within two or three days.” 

Rogoff, 2003

Photos from left: Melanesian Villagers in Jayapura, Papua in 2004 by Mangiwau; Mother and baby in Pot Moresby by Clyde Lovuru/EyeEm; Papuan Family also by Mangiwau.

Quoting an excerpt from Hogbin’s 1943 publication on infant development in New Guinea: “No one seems to think that active encouragement of any kind is necessary. When I told the natives how we coax our babies to stand at a much earlier age, they admitted  that such methods might be suitable where there was no fireplace or veranda from which to tumble, but they openly laughed at me for speaking of ‘teaching’ children to walk. A child walks of it’s own accord, they said, once it has reached the appropriate stage of growth; I would be saying next that trees had to be instructed in how to bear fruit.” (Hogbin, 1943, p 302) 

quadruplets crawl up a staircase as older sibling watches from the top
No living with them now– look at the last one grin. #trouble

“Differences in communities’ values and expectations underlie varying parental efforts to help children learn skills. African infants routinely surpass U.S. infants in their rate of learning to sit and to walk, but not in learning to crawl or to climb stairs. This may be because African parent provide experience for their babies that are intended to teach sitting and walking. Sitting skills are encouraged by propping very young infants in a sitting position supported by rolled blankets in a hole in the ground. Walking skills are encouraged by exercising the newborn walking reflex and by bouncing babies on their feet. But crawling is discouraged, and stair-climbing skills may be limited by the absence of stairs.”

ibid

There are many cultures that do/did not allow crawling, actively prevented babies from doing so for health, safety, or cultural reasons– yet these infants grow up and learn to walk around the same time as infants in other cultures. Less stress should be put on the attainment of transient infant development milestones, less stress for parents who think they have some (or should have some) control over when their baby learns to crawl.

Crawling is not necessary and is incidental in otherwise healthy infants. Of course, any baby who has low tone (hypotonia) or who seems to unlearn motor skills should be evaluated by a medical profession immediately. However, in healthy infants it is not necessary to teach or encourage crawling, there is no need for special exercises, toys, or crawling aides. Babies crawl because they can not because they need to in order to progress in their development. The babies in Taira or Turkey, Central Australia, or Bali were not allowed tummy time, let alone free range to practice crawling, yet in brief moments when left to their own devices they were crawling independently as if by instinct. Being prevented from crawling due to being held or carried is not a risk to future development or for walking so long as infants get plenty of mental and physical stimulation through carrying. Babies need movement but crawling is cultural, it’s dependent on the environment and resources to supervise or protect a baby who is not old enough to understand danger. So have fun with your baby, if both of you enjoy tummy time and have the environment and schedule that allows for it, by all means do it. But if you’re an active parent or caregiver, happy to carry your baby around or are in an environment that allowing baby to crawl around isn’t feasible, don’t stress about crawling.


If you enjoy this kind of research, please consider supporting The Baby Historian on Patreon. And thank you to my on-going patrons, I couldn’t do this work without your support.


Sources:

Agrawak, Sunil K. March 2011. “Robots for infants”. Mechanical engineering, 50-51.

Davis, Beth Ellen, et al, 1998. Effects of sleep position on infant motor development. Pediatrics. 102(5):1135.

DeLoache, Judy and Alma Gottlieb. 2006. A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Doyle, James. 2015. “Olmec Babies as Early Portraiture in the Americas.” Now at the Met. The Met.

Gottlieb, Alma. 2004. The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

Rogoff, Barbara. 2003. The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Whiting, Beatrice B. ed. 1963. Six Cultures: Studies in Child Rearing. New York: Wiley. 

2016, “Researchers Submit Patent Application, ‘Garment for Infants’, for Approval (USPTO 20160278442).” Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week, 4251. NewsRX LLC.

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