Saturday, May 12, 2012
The Myth About Crawling Creeps In Again
You think mistakes have gone away-- then they crop up again as vigorously as weeds in the garden! That’s what I’ve just found at http://stellarcaterpillar.com. This web site has a great name, and no doubt contains some valuable material (like a video of how a baby climbs out of his crib). BUT… it also reiterates the Myth About Crawling.
This myth states that babies must crawl, and do so for some period of time, in order to cause the brain to develop properly. It’s a myth because it doesn’t happen to be true, and unfortunately it’s also a piece of folklore, which by definition goes without critical examination by most of its hearers.
Here’s what the stellarcaterpillar author says: “Sometimes baby learns to pull up to a standing position too soon, before his bones and muscles are strong enough to support him. In this situation, it is best for the parent to take his hands back down to the floor and tell him it is not time to stand, and it is still time to crawl. It is very beneficial for baby to crawl for several weeks before standing up. For many years, experts have researched and shown that crawling is very important for the development of the brain.” This author, a dance therapist, goes on to say that babies try to stand “too soon” because of imitating an older sibling, attending day care where older babies walk, or being put in a jumper “too soon”. (Don’t their parents walk, by the way?) She implies without directly stating it that such babies are at risk for inappropriate brain development if not discouraged from standing and receiving praise for crawling. And I must say that she does not “show her work” as she engages in this confident speculation.
So, what about all this? Let’s look at some important issues. The first one is the idea that actions stimulate the parts of the brain that produce them-- for example, that as I use my right hand to type, I am stimulating the left side of the brain, the side that is doing much to control the right hand’s movements. (By the way, see my previous post about brain functions for some comments about the right-brain/left-brain distinction.) The logic is this: activity of the left hemisphere causes the right hand to move, therefore the movement of the right hand causes activity in the LH. To put it more generally, this statement is that if A causes B, B causes A. Does anyone recognize this error of critical thinking? It’s called “affirming the consequent”, and it’s the cause of a lot of mistakes in logic. By this fallacy, if the cow jumped over the moon, the moon also jumped over the cow! Of course there can be situations where two factors are mutually causal, but showing that requires a lot more information than a simple statement.
What’s so concerning about the stellarcaterpillar author’s affirmation of the consequent? Well, there are several erroneous conclusions that can be reached if you start with this mistake. One , the practice of “patterning”, goes back to about 1960 and is still advocated by the Institute for Human Potential in Philadelphia—despite two position statements of the American Academy of Pediatrics rejecting it. “Patterning” is a practice based on the idea that moving on all fours provides not just stimulation to the brain (see previous paragraph), but a pattern of stimulation that affects the right and left hemispheres simultaneously and therefore is asserted to have a special benefit (for which no systematic evidence has been offered). “Patterning” advocates are best known for claiming that repeatedly moving the limbs and head of a brain-injured person would cause the brain to re-develop normally. They have also claimed that forcing school-age children to crawl would repair a range of problems from cerebral palsy to dyslexia. Not only does “patterning” not accomplish these goals, it costs families a good deal in terms of time, money, and other resources. I don’t doubt that “patterning” believers are sincere, but I do consider them deluded.
Having assumed that crawling benefits brain development, the stellarcaterpillar author has to deal with how a child who wants to stand can be prevented from doing so. She suggests discouragement of standing and praise for crawling-- apparently assuming that infants’ primary motivation is social approval or disapproval, and possibly forgetting how they throw food on the floor in spite of their mothers’ negative responses. In fact, the stellarcaterpillar author has forgotten the insight of infant mental health researchers into the fact that mastery motivation is of critical importance in determining infant and toddler behavior. Babies and young children want to master skills and accomplish things. That’s why they work hard and often seem to lose interest in anything they’ve mastered, why they no sooner walk than they have to try walking backwards. Interfering with the baby’s own developmental goals will be extraordinarily frustrating for baby and parent both, and by the way, if the adult succeeds in making the baby stop trying a new skill, it will not be so easy to reverse the attitude when the parent decides there’s been enough crawling. (ANECDOTE WARNING: Some years ago I was consulted about a baby who was not sitting up unsupported at the typical age. Turned out his family day-care provider didn’t have enough cribs to go around, so she put him to nap in a baby carriage. She stayed near, and if he tried to sit up, she pushed him back down. He learned not to sit, and had to be worked with a good deal before he tried it again.)
A final point about the assumptions made by the stellarcaterpillar author: it’s a big mistake to think that development occurs only because of specific experiences a child has. Many aspects of development simply unfold in the course of maturation and are supported by everyday events that usually go unnoticed by adults. A certain amount of motor development has to do with the baby’s muscle strength and position of the center of gravity. Esther Thelen, the great motor development researcher, showed that Down syndrome babies walked earlier when they had a chance to exercise on a “baby treadmill” and strengthen their muscles. But babies can’t and don’t “walk too early” and harm their brain or bone development, any more than they hurt themselves by “talking too early” or “reading too early”. If they try something they’re not ready to do, they fall down, literally or figuratively.
In the days when rickets was common, legs may have become bowed in the course of early walking. But the belief that brains can be “bowed” in this way is simply modern folklore.