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More Crawling Experience May Strengthen a Baby’s Risk Perception

Baby in diaper crawling

Getty Images / Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers say crawling is an important step in the development of risk perception.
  • Crawling is an important milestone, but it’s important to let your child develop in their own way and at their own pace.
  • Although the studies used water to gauge baby’s risk perception, it is important to keep one hand on your infant at all times when they are around water.

At around seven to 10 months of age, most babies begin to move around independently—often by crawling. This lets them explore their environment, improve their balance and coordination, and hone their problem-solving skills.

Recent studies have found that increased crawling experience may even help keep your baby safe, furthering the positive benefits crawling has on a baby's independence. Researchers at the University of Otago investigated the correlation between crawling and risk perception and found that more experienced crawlers are less likely to fall into open water.

What the Research Tells Us

One of the studies, published in Infancy, looked at the effect of locomotor experience—otherwise known as the experience of different movement methods—on infants' avoidance of sudden drop-offs.

The team, led by Carolina Burnay, PhD, of the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, tested babies’ behavior around a tub filled with water, known as a drop-off.

“On the water drop-off, the results show that the amount of crawling experience informs infants’ adaptive behavior,” Dr. Burnay explains. “Soon after babies start crawling, they tend to fall into the water. But after some weeks of crawling experience, they start avoiding the fall.”

Carolina Burnay, PhD

Soon after babies start crawling, they tend to fall into the water. But after some weeks of crawling experience, they start avoiding the fall.

— Carolina Burnay, PhD

Interestingly, even when infants start walking, the difference between the infants who fall into the water and those who avoid it was the amount of crawling experience they had before starting walking.

The second study, published in Developmental Psychobiology, focused on infants’ behavior around a slope leading into deep water. These findings were different, with no notable effect of crawling experience on infants’ avoidance of the deep water.

“This result suggests that although self-locomotor experience teaches infants to perceive the risk of falls, into the water or not, it has no impact on their perception of bodies of water as risky environments that should be avoided,” says Dr. Burnay.

Importantly, when the researchers compared infants’ behavior on the water drop-off with their behavior on the water slope, babies were more likely to engage in drowning incidents when slopes are offered to access the water.

Infant Safety Around Water

The findings suggest that it is helpful for babies to crawl and explore their environment. By having direct contact with the floor and a different view of the world around them, they learn to identify unsafe surfaces. 

“Epidemiological studies have shown that young children are the most represented in drowning statistics,” Dr. Burnay says. She explains that this is because they become able to move around but remain incapable of recognizing the risks of their environment.

“Knowing the statistics isn’t enough to develop effective strategies to prevent drowning among young children,” Dr. Burnay says. “We need to know why infants engage in drowning incidents and how we can use this information to promote safety behaviors as soon as possible.” 

Carolina Burnay, PhD

We need to know why infants engage in drowning incidents and how we can use this information to promote safety behaviors as soon as possible.

— Carolina Burnay, PhD

Babies can drown in as little as one to two inches of water. The best strategy to avoid incidents among young children is still adult supervision. If a slope is leading into the water, supervision is even more important.

What If My Baby Doesn’t Crawl?

If your baby isn’t showing an interest in crawling, that’s not necessarily a cause for concern. Some babies skip the whole crawling stage altogether and go straight to standing and cruising (walking while holding onto furniture or other objects).

“There’s absolutely nothing a parent can do to influence how long their babies crawl for nor should parents attempt to intervene on normal physical developmental progression,” says Corey Fish, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and founder and chief medical officer at Brave Care in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Fish says the most important takeaway is to expose infants to a variety of new experiences, interact with them, and let them interact (safely) with the world around them.

What This Means For You

Although crawling can strengthen a baby’s perception of risk, children should never crawl unsupervised, especially near water. When your baby is in water, use touch supervision. This means you should be able to keep one hand on your child at all times, even when reaching for necessary supplies, like a towel. If you realize you’ve forgotten something, or need to attend to another child, remove your infant from the water and take them with you.

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  1. Burnay C, Cordovil R, Button C, Croft JL, Anderson DI. Experienced crawlers avoid real and water drop‐offs, even when they are walking. Infancy. Published online July 8, 2021. doi:10.1111/infa.12419

  2. Burnay C, Button C, Cordovil R, Anderson DI, Croft JL. Do infants avoid a traversable slope leading into deep water? Dev Psychobiol. Published online August 1, 2021. doi:10.1002/dev.22169