Your Brain Needs To Crawl Before It Can Run: Why Babies Must Master Crawling for Optimal Brain Development
Temper tantrums, screaming, aggression, focus and attention span issues, chair rocking, the need to touch everything, motion sickness, illegible writing, poor reading skills, tight pencil gripping, zoning out, sensitivities to fabrics and tags...
Do any of these sound familiar? These are just some of the issues associated with an underdeveloped lower brain - the result of skipping the crawling stage prior to walking and possibly not having enough tummy time as an infant. The good news? There is hope!
I first noticed it around the age of three and a half. It was about the time we started ballet. My perfect and beautiful little girl was completely absent during class. While all the other plump toddlers tried to mimic the ballet teacher, my baby just stood there blankly staring into space, barely even aware that there was an instructor and she was supposed to follow suit.
In retrospect, it seemed a little odd, since the other girls her age seemed to be keeping up, but she was just a baby. She wasn't aware of anything. She'd grow out of it.
We had the same issue in pre-school, and her teachers used to tell me that although she was very bright, she would zone out often and just seemed spacey most of the time. But she was still a baby. She'd grow out of it.
We had to quit figure-skating because she failed Tots 3. Twice! It's not that she couldn't skate. It's that she just wasn't there.
I would look on from the bleachers as she just stood on the ice, sometimes with her back to the teacher, watching all the other kids. The only time she actually did what she was supposed to do was when the instructor spoke to her directly or was teaching her something one-one-one. But she was still little. Only 6 years old. Soon she'd be aware of how poorly not paying attention reflected on her and she'd snap out of it. Any minute!
Everything took forever. Eating was the worst part of our day and an exercise in futility. It sometimes took nearly two hours, most of which we both spent tense and frustrated. I tried everything to make the process more efficient. I punished and put her in the corner. I took away the toys that distracted her. I rewarded quicker meals with movies and fun activities. I bought a really large clock to teach her the concept of time. Although the clock was the most efficient (usually when it got into the red zone), none of it really helped in the long term. I lost my temper. I yelled. I just couldn't understand how nothing I did resonated with her. At least not for very long.
We started rhythmic gymnastics when she was about six, and she seemed to thrive. She loved the classes and couldn't wait to come home and show off her crazy flexibility and, admittedly, some pretty cool moves.
I was impressed and attributed her success to the tough, no-holds-barred Russian instructors, who told me that she had a talent for the sport... and that she had the body to excel in it... and that her talents would likely never amount to anything because she didn't pay attention during class and spent a lot of time looking around and "socializing."
I yelled. I lectured. I put her in the corner. And finally, I threatened to take her out of gymnastics. She begged me not to with tears in her eyes and swore she'd change. I could tell she meant it and really wanted to. There would be a slight improvement at the next class, but the same issues persisted, as did my yelling and empty threats.
The truth is that I didn't want to take her out of gymnastics. I could see that it could really be her sport. She did have a knack for it... in fact, so much so, that I was willing to spend 9 hours out of my own week driving her to class and waiting around for her to finish in the parking lot.
It wasn't until second grade that I realized that something was really amiss. She was really struggling. I felt like her reading wasn't up to par. Math was becoming a challenge. Memorizing spelling words took way more time than it should. And the bottom line was that everything took so long that we were constantly rushing, I was always yelling, and there simply didn't seem to be enough time in the waking hours of her day to do everything she had to do. The worst part was that I knew she was an exceptionally bright kid and I could tell how badly she wanted to please her parents and teachers, but I just couldn't understand why she wasn't willing to work harder. After all, hard work... that's what it's always about. Right?
Her teacher confirmed what I already knew. She simply wasn't paying attention during class.
This was clearly a behavioral issue and I was going to parent it out of her. I created a daily schedule and reward system. I collaborated with her teacher to institute a daily feedback system that reported how she behaved during class. It was abysmal.
I lost my mind. I started taking away her toys. One-by-one, her Barbies ended up in plastic bags in the basement. Her beloved Barbie doll house and the gardens she built around it were in a big box, along with nearly all of her stuffed animals. When she barely had any toys left, I started to take away her favorite clothes. She would get upset for a second and then return to her happy, smiley and affectionate self, never mentioning the items again, and never asking for them back. I yelled. I put her in the corner. I threatened spanking. What else was there? My tough-love parenting arsenal was nearly depleted.
I asked her teachers for help. I consulted my therapist neighbor. I talked to everyone whose parenting style I respected. However, no one seemed to have any answers, until...
When my daughter was about six years old, we went to Denver to visit our dear, old friends. They had three kids, two of whom reminded me of the Von Trapp children from the Sound of Music. They were bright, beautiful, polite, talented and just absolutely exemplary in every way. And then there was the third. He was more like Dennis the Menace. He squashed flies with his fingers, had frequent temper tantrums, and screamed. A lot! He too was very bright, but I couldn't understand how it was possible that this little tasmanian devil belonged to the same family.
That weekend we talked about the kids and our friends confided some of their concerns about their youngest, which provided me with a platform to talk a little bit about what was going on with my own daughter. My friend looked at me and asked a very simple, yet poignant question.
"Did Bella crawl before walking?" he asked.
I just about spit out my coffee. What a strange question it was. And yet, my ears perked up, because he hit the nail on the head. My daughter did NOT, in fact, crawl before walking. Ironically, this was actually an anecdotal story that my husband and I would talk about. We thought she was somehow advanced and sometimes boasted about how she went from sitting to walking without "wasting time" on that "in between phase." Who knew that this "in-between" phase was absolutely crucial to the ever important brain development, something that was always in the forefront of my mind.
I mean, I did EVERYTHING right when my daughter was a baby. I researched the "bejesus" out of things that most people wouldn't even know were relevant. I religiously followed the guidelines of Dr. Weisbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, because more sleep was associated with higher IQs. I breastfed until I ran out of milk. I memorized passages out of Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care. I was inspired to learn to cook so that she exclusively ate organic, homemade meals. My daughter drank bone broth. A lot! And she never tasted sugar (outside of fruit) until she went to her first birthday party at the age of about three. But crawling? It never even occurred to me.
My friend went on to tell me that his youngest also never crawled and he suspected that this was the cause of his issues. He also went on to explain to me that there was a local Denver program that specialized in kids that had special symptoms, like my daughter and his youngest son due to an underdeveloped lower brain, which was the result of skipping the ultra important developmental crawling stage.
Although the lack of crawling really resonated with me, at that time, I still believed that my daughter's lack of focus was completely behavioral and age-specific, and that she would grow out of it. Moreover, my sweet, polite, quiet little lady was nothing like his wild, loud, and overly rambunctious boy. No rational person could ever group them in the same or even similar category. And it was specifically this comparison that made my eyes glaze over and completely discount all the information on this program and go back to my super "effective" strategy of yelling, punishing, rewarding, and major frustration. After all, if it was right for this kid, it certainly wasn't right for my baby Bella. They had nothing in common! NOTHING!
It wasn't until two years later, when Bella was struggling through second grade and I was at wit's end at what to do about it, that we went skiing with the same friend and revisited the subject. At this point, I was listening. Could it be that my friend's son and my daughter were struggling with the same developmetal issues despite the fact that the manifestation of their symptoms were exhibited so differently?
As soon as I got home, I pulled up the website he had told me about and started to read every word. There were also a number of videos on the site, illustrating some of the issues kids with underdeveloped lower brains might be struggling with, which definitely resonated with me, but it wasn't until I stumbled on the third video (below) that I just burst into tears. It was my child exactly. Every single issue pictured. I couldn't believe it. I had been yelling and punishing behaviors, which were never within her full control.
MOVEMENT IS CRUCIAL TO BRAIN ORGANIZATION!
When I was a new mommy, I had heard that tummy time was important for the baby's spine development, as well as for strengthening the head, neck, shoulder, arm and torso muscles. However, I didn't hear much about crawling being a necessary developmental step, nor did I ever imagine that these two basic stages were inextricably linked to crucial brain and neurological organization.
Neurological organization is the development of the central nervous system, which is a continual process between birth and the age of eight, with the first year being the most critically important. In fact, by the time your baby reaches his first birthday, his brain will have grown to 50 percent of its adult size.
During the first couple of years, movement is imperative to learning. Crawling, creeping, rolling, turning, walking, skipping, reaching, and swinging are essential for your baby's brain development. Believe it or not, these specific motor activities follow a certain plan, as the nervous system of each new human being must go through a series of developmental stages before the brain can operate at its full potential. These whole body movements "program" your baby's motor/perceptual equipment, his nerves, and brain cells.
Although your baby's movements on his tummy may appear random, he is performing the "Core-Distal Movement," a common pattern among all healthy infants. These movements gradually become more organized and evolve into another pattern, called the "Head and Tail Movement."
Early belly crawling evolves into more skilled crawling, and as your baby learns to get around, he will also improve his ability to track objects with his eyes in a horizontal direction, a skill that will later help him read. Simultaneously, rocking and swaying movements help develop the vestibular system, which helps with your baby's orientation and balance. As your baby moves up to creep on his hands and knees, his eyes' ability to track objects vertically improves. Coordinating vertical and horizontal eye tracking is an important skill for reading and writing.
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In addition to the observable changes that are taking place, countless other neurological tasks are being stimulated and organized through movement, including improved detailed visual perception and focusing, body temperature and sleep/wake cycle stabilization, and the gradual replacement of newborn movement patterns with more mature human movements and behaviors.
If babies do not have the opportunity (or enough of an opportunity) to roll, crawl, creep, rock, turn, stretch, clasp, focus, babble, etc., in order to wire the brain and lay the foundation for reading, writing, socialization and healthy behavior, little gaps in their development may appear in the years ahead and they may encounter problems in school with learning and behavior, no matter how bright and capable they seem.
Unfortunately, today's babies oftentimes don't have many opportunities to practice these instinctive activities, and they do not spend nearly enough time on the floor and on their tummies as they should. Rather they spend an inordinate amount of time in their car seats, even when not riding in a car, but strapped in for safety in homes, stores, restaurants and waiting at lessons for siblings. While car seats are very important in saving lives, they can hinder normal growth and development when used too often as a playpen or holding area. Additionally, many "germaphobic" mommies (and I know this from personal experience) scoff at the thought of putting their babies on an unsanitary surface like the floor, and do tummy time on top of blankets, which increase the difficulty of certain movements for a baby and hinder crawling. So the moral of the story is: get your baby on the bare floor (wipe it down if it makes you feel better), take of his socks and roll up his sleeves and let him do his thing on his tummy for as long and as often as possible... and for God's sake do NOT skip the crawling stage!
If you are expecting or have an infant, make sure to review my suggestions below for babies from 0-12 months.
- Place your baby on his tummy on the floor for exercise and play as often and for as long as possible throughout the day.
- Lying on blankets or quilts makes it harder for your baby to travel when he is first learning, so provide a smooth surface, such as wood, linoleum, or simply your kitchen floor, which tends to be cleaner than rugs.
- Clear the area of furniture and other things so that there is plenty of space for your baby to move around on his tummy, hands, and knees.
- Allow your baby's arms and legs to be free to move as he wants.
- Get down on the floor with your baby to encourage creeping and crawling as appropriate to development.
- Mimic your baby's movements, stretching your head up, crawling on your belly, creeping on your hands and knees, rolling over, and sitting up. Believe it or not, moving through these fundamental patterns is good for everyone's brains, even those of adults... especially if you, too, missed that crucial development phase in your infancy.
- Bare his hands and feet so they an be used for belly crawling, which is an essential fundamental pattern. Socks and long sleeves are slippery, making it difficult to crawl.
- Do the bicycle, which is one of the best exercises you can do with your baby. Grab your baby’s legs and gently “bicycle” after diaper changes to stimulate the nerves and muscles in his legs and feet.
- Do NOT teach your baby to walk. There is absolutely no reason to hurry, even if the baby next door started walking at 9 months, according to his gloating Momzilla. Belly-crawling and creeping on hands and knees (in that order) is crucial for creating an emotionally, physically, socially, and intellectually healthy adult.
- In addition to nursing, holding, touching, and massaging your infant, don't forget to swing, sway, bounce, turn, dip, and dive him too. Savor every moment with your baby. It is a beautiful time, and it disappears in a blink of an eye.
If you are interested in learning more, I've selected four of my favorite books on the topic (you can find additional titles in the references at the end of this blog):
MISSING THE CRAWLING BOAT
So what happens if your child didn't have adequate time on his tummy as an infant, or skipped the crawling stage altogether, like my daughter did? Unfortunately, research shows a strong correlation between children who did not crawl and learning, behavioral and social issues later on in life. Why? Because these fundamental movements serve a very important purpose: to organize the brain and "wire" its parts. Missing or abbreviating these crucial developmental stages in infancy can mean that your child's brain did not complete its organization, an area of the brain stem called the "pons" did not finish its development, and your child likely retained one or more primitive reflexes that are supposed to disappear after the first year of life.
According to scientists, every human baby is born with over 70 primitive reflexes. During the first year of life, these reflexes cause him to move in a very specific series of ways. These movements serve a very important function: to develop the brain and get all of its "wires" connected. Once these reflexes have done their job, they retire in a part of the brain stem called the medulla. However, if a baby does not crawl or walks early, these primitive reflexes stay active and get in the way of the brain’s functions.
So what happens if some of these primitive reflexes hang around? Well, it's not a good thing. A University of Purdue research study showed that 75 percent of all children with developmental delays have at least one retained primitive reflex. The same study showed that there were no retained reflexes in any children testing “normal.” Studies performed at the University of Newcastle produced the same data. And a separate study done by Gustafsson showed similar results: less than 5 percent of “normal” children were shown to retain any primitive reflexes.
It seems that holding on to these primitive reflexes can keep the brain in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. When the brain stem is immature, it feels constantly threatened and the child is in survival mode all the time. As a response to the constant stress and threats detected by the immature brain stem, the body is constantly secreting cortisol and adrenaline, which can cause increased hyperactivity and many other symptoms, some of which are listed below:
- Autism or ADD/ADHD
- Persistent zoning out, lack of focus and attention
- Aggression and/or Extreme and frequent nuclear meltdowns
- Eye tracking problems
- Social ineptitude
- Bed wetting
- Shouting out at inappropriate times
- Extreme anxiety and irrational fears
- Constant need to draw attention to oneself
- Extreme separation anxiety after the age of three
- Poor handwriting and/or scribbles when coloring
- Trouble transitioning between activities
- The need to touch everything
- Chair rocking, foot tapping, or general inability to sit still
- Poor reading abilities and comprehension, often losing place while reading
Road rage in adults
The frustrating (but fortuitous) part is that this has nothing to do with intelligence. Many highly gifted children (and adults) struggle with many of these issues, and most of them have no idea why, when it's as simple as the fact that as infants they just didn't spend enough time crawling, playing on their tummies, and/or performing the specific series of movements that would fully connect the various parts of their brain. Some children and adults display only a few traits. Others show more.
THE GOOD NEWS
Although the bad news is these missed, abbreviated, or disorganized developmental stages in infancy can create significant barriers that make learning and "behaving" difficult, the great news is that the brain is incredibly resilient. In fact, the most recent scientific breakthroughs are now showing that it is never too late to reorganize the brain and integrate primitive reflexes by performing certain types of movement activities that go through the missed developmental stages. With these specialized exercises, the brain can complete its development at any age and often correct flaws in perceptual processes and enhance learning. [See Fox 5 News Clip.]
“…because the brain reorganizes itself during new learning, the brain has the capacity to rewire itself to improve learning.”
- Dr. Michael Merzenich, University of California
My daughter and I are starting Brain Highways on April 30th. There is a lot of parental involvement and a good amount of daily homework, which will interfere with my work and our plethora of daily activities, but at the end of the day, there is nothing I wouldn't do to make life easier for my daughter and provide her with every opportunity to succeed in life. Plus, who knows? Maybe it will help me be a little less of a perfectionist, which has been a huge black hole for me in terms of time.
I'll keep you updated about our progress as we embark on this journey. Fingers crossed, our experiences will not only help her, but perhaps your child, too.