Welcome to PART 3 of my 3-part series on crawling! In Part 1 we learned about how crawling develops and in Part 2 we explored the many benefits of crawling. Today in Part 3 we are going to take a look at tips for helping baby learn to crawl.
From my perspective as a mom and occupational therapist, I find that there are two important components to helping babies learn to crawl:
It’s important to keep in mind that many babies will likely be able to progress through the first year of infant milestones naturally and without much (if any) adult intervention. Babies are explorers by nature! However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of how to lay a good foundation for your baby’s development and how to play with baby in a way that will encourage continued development of skills. The point of this post isn’t to make you over-think your baby’s development. My hope is that it will encourage you, educate you, and empower you as you follow your little one’s developmental journey! This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (see my full disclosure here).
You can help your baby lay a good foundation for the development of pre-crawling skills by:
1. Encouraging tummy time from the very beginning, within the first few days of life. This doesn’t mean you have to just plop your baby flat on the floor on their tummy, let them scream, and curse your pediatrician’s name for saying you have to do tummy time with your baby. You can ease into it in order to meet your newborn where they’re at (which is at zero head control, right?), and then gradually increase the challenge as they become stronger and more engaged.
Research has shown that many parents avoid placing their baby on their tummy because their baby doesn’t tolerate it well.¹ Kind of a no-brainer, right? However, research has also shown that the amount of time babies spend playing on their tummy does actually relate to their achievement of four motor milestones: rolling, belly crawling (aka- army crawling), crawling on hands and knees, and sitting up.² Tummy time is important, people!
2. Providing opportunities for playing on the floor on all four sides: left side, right side, back, and tummy. I already mentioned the importance of playtime on the tummy in laying a solid foundation for later development of crawling. But did you know babies need to work out the muscles along all four sides of the body in order to develop the strength and stability needed for later motor skills such as rolling, sitting, and crawling? It can be hard to remember to help babies lay on their sides during floor time, especially if they are young. However, side lying is important because it relieves pressure from the back of baby’s head, is an important part of preventing flat spots, helps babies practice their reaching and hand-eye coordination skills, and gets them ready to learn to roll! Here is one trick I like to use to help babies play on their sides.
Playtime on the back is equally important because it gives babies the opportunity to turn their head to work out any muscle tightness in their neck, practice their kicking, reaching, and hand-eye coordination skills (like when they play in a baby gym), engage in movements encouraging tucking of the chin and body (known as “flexion”), and discover new body parts as their brain creates a “map” of their body (hello, delicious toes!).
I have found that this type of active play that engages the core muscles and encourages babies to move into and out of that tucked position can be especially helpful in encouraging later development of crawling, particularly for babies who try to move around by laying on their back and arching (“extension,” the opposite of flexion) in order to scoot around, like my second baby did as a pre-crawler.
3. Encouraging activities to promote the development of rolling. I have written an entire post with tips to help babies learn to roll, and it is consistently one of the most popular infant-related posts here on the blog every single day, and with good reason — rolling is baby’s first major motor milestone parents know to look for, and babies seem to tease us for weeks on end by acting like they’re on the brink of rolling, without actually doing the deed! On average, babies tend to first roll from tummy to back between 2-5 months, from back to side between 4-5.5 months, and from back to tummy between 5.5-7.5 months. Rolling is one of the first major contributors to the development of postural control as babies learn to transition between positions all by themselves while strengthening the muscles all around the four sides of the body.
4. Encouraging the development of “functional sitting” through transitional positions.When babies develop functional sitting, they are able to get into sitting by themselves, and they understand how their body works in space in order to help them safely get out of the sitting position. Watch an example of one of my little ones demonstrating functional sitting in action by clicking over to this 25-second video clip (it will open in a new window so you don’t lose your place here), or simply watching in the box below.
Functional sitting is in contrast to “placed sitting,” where babies are placed or propped in a sitting position before they are developmentally able to get into or out of the position themselves. This isn’t to say you can never place your baby in sitting in order to practice that specific skill (though there are varying opinions on this topic among developmental professionals). I would encourage you to be cautious about using baby equipment that props babies up in a sitting position. Babies typically don’t need to sit in equipment like a Bumbo seat in order to learn to sit. Being able to maintain independent sitting balance requires the coordination of several muscle groups, which need to be strengthened through play and positioning that challenges all those muscle groups around the front, sides, and back of the body as they safely wobble and learn to regain their balance. Here are five ideas for how to support a wobbly sitter without having to invest in expensive baby equipment. And keep in mind that, in order to crawl, it’s helpful for babies to be comfortable moving into and out of various positions on their own, including moving into and out of the sitting position. This is how functional sitting contributes to the development of crawling.
5. Giving baby opportunities to belly crawl. Belly crawling is helpful in the progression leading up to hands-and-knees crawling because it gives babies a chance to practice coordinating all their flailing body parts in order to move forward. The movements involved in learning to belly crawl may appear kind of awkward at first and will probably look more like “belly scooting” than “belly crawling.” In order to learn to belly crawl, babies need access to two things: space and opportunities for practice! (A little motivation doesn’t hurt either.)
One way to help babies learn to belly crawl is by basically eliminating the amount of friction between their arms/legs and the floor while playing on their tummy. This allows them nearly unrestricted movement as they experiment with how to slide their arms and legs around while on their belly. How do you do this? The best way I’ve found is by putting them on a slick surface while they wear long sleeved footie PJs or a long sleeved onesie with pants and socks. If you have hardwood floors in your house, then this can be done pretty much anywhere in your house. For us, it meant the kitchen floor (which our babies naturally gravitated toward anyway because that’s where the action happens)…and this motivated us to keep that area as clean as possible! See the 3-photo sequence below as an example.
Once baby has learned how to move arms and legs with unrestricted movement, then you can try this idea of putting baby in a short sleeved onesie while on a slick surface so their arms and legs will sort of “stick” and give them more traction as their clothed belly slides across the floor. Now they can really get movin’ like a little lizard baby!
6. Giving babies opportunities to pivot while playing on their tummy. Babies begin practicing their mini break dance moves by pivoting a quarter-turn at around 5-6 months old. This is great pre-crawling practice for many reasons, but especially because it helps them practice coordinating both arms in order to move the rest of their body. Babies often will figure out how to do this on their own. However, you can encourage pivoting efforts early on by doing the jammies-on-a-slippery-floor thing, or by strategically positioning motivating toys and items slightly off to the side (or all the way surrounding baby in a circle) so baby is encouraged to pivot in order to attain them. Examples of motivating items might include favorite toys, teethers, blankies, pacifiers, or even a mirror where baby can see an exciting reflection. You’ll probably also find that the most motivating items are things you don’t want baby to get, such as the remote, smelly running shoes, a sweaty sports hat, cords, or your half full coffee cup.
7. Creating a “yes” space. I was so excited when I learned about the concept of a “yes” space (or “growing space”) at a parent-infant class taught by Laura Sobell when I was a new parent! In a “yes” space, babies can do anything they want and it’s okay. Nothing is off limits in the “yes” space, and everything is made to be as safe as possible so they can freely move and explore. You’ll have to continually modify and update your baby’s safe play space as new skills emerge. In babies’ pre-rolling days, their “yes” space might just be a blanket. In their older pre-crawling days, it might expand into a Pack ‘n Play, an area blocked off by pillows, or a section of a room blocked off by couches and chairs. Below is an examples of a “yes” space we had for a little while during the pre-crawling days. Man, it was so nice when we could just block things off with pillows back then!
Read more about the reasoning behind a “yes” space and tips for putting one together, plus check out this creative example of how to turn a baby pool into an indoor “yes” space for homes with an open floor plan.
8. Minimizing time spent in “containers.” This includes baby equipment that restricts babies’ natural ability to move and explore, such as bouncers, swings, Bumbos, jumpers, exersaucers, walkers, and car seat travel systems that have been taken out of the car. Notice I didn’t say “throwing away all baby containers.” The point here is not to make anyone feel guilty for putting baby in a bouncer or swing so you can actually wash your hair (which may seem like it is all falling out at this point) and clean off the stench of baby spit up and diaper blowouts. The point is to help you avoid the container shuffle and remember that babies learn how to coordinate and control their bodies through practice moving through all sorts of positions that are pretty different than the positioning that occurs when placed in a baby container. When trying to determine how much time is “too much” time spent in baby equipment throughout the day, keep in mind that there is no “official” ruling on how much is too much. However, I often hear therapists share that baby should spend no more than approximately 2 hours a day or 15-20 minutes at a time in baby equipment. Learn more about this “Rule of 2 and 15” along with realistic tips for how to minimize time spent in baby equipment.
The eight suggestions listed above can help build skills to lay a good foundation for the development of crawling, as well as help your baby avoid prolonged exposure to baby equipment that can reinforce poor body positions and motor patterns.
Once your baby has developed the foundations and can almost crawl, you can help nudge him or her from almost-crawler to crawler!
As mentioned earlier in this post, many babies are capable of figuring out how to crawl all on their own. However, if it appears your baby may need a little support or encouragement, or you just want to have fun being a part of their developmental process, try out some of the ideas listed below.
1. Elevate the surface for baby’s hands. When babies put their hands up on a slightly higher surface, it encourages them to bear a little bit of weight on their knees. I would say this is probably my favorite pre-crawling tip, both for my own babies as well as my readers. Every reader I have shared this tip with (so far) has written back to tell me it helped move their baby forward in the crawling process! In addition to bearing weight on the knees, you’ll also see in the pictures below that it gives baby a chance to practice some SERIOUS upper body and core strengthening as well. Hello, plank hold!
A shorter elevated surface will be easier at first and could include household items such as a couch cushion or crib mattress placed flat on the floor. I would definitely suggest softer items at first, since baby may invest in a few face plants in the beginning. A pot or upside-down storage bin works well (as pictured below) once you are not concerned about face bonks, but just make sure the items are stabilized so they don’t flip over or slide.
2. Let baby play in front of a mirror. This is perhaps my favorite baby play idea of all time because it is so simple yet so effective, and it never gets old. Babies LOVE to look at their mirror reflection in their pre-crawling days, and it’s so fun to watch them try to impress “that other baby in the mirror” when they have no idea that they are actually looking at themselves. Mirrors can provide great motivation for baby to scoot and crawl up to their reflection in order to say hello, or they can just pose and admire themselves from afar.
Don’t have a mirror? Well, what about a diaper box with a picture of a baby on it? Like I said, babies this age don’t yet realize the baby in the reflection is them and, in my experience, big pictures of babies are sometimes almost as good as the real reflection. I swear when my oldest was a baby, he thought those smiling cuties on the diaper boxes were his best friends!
3. Play with baby tummy-down on an exercise ball and gently rock forward-backward, diagonally, and side-to-side. Have you ever thought about how, when babies crawl, they have to figure out how to shift their weight forward, diagonally, and left-to-right as they lean on the left arm to move the right arm forward, lean on the right arm to move the left forward, and so on? By engaging baby in tummy-down playtime on an exercise ball while gently rocking in these directions, you can help simulate a similar type of weight shift, especially if baby is bearing weight through the arms while on the tummy. The photo below provides a nice basic example of this concept, and is being shared with permission of physical therapist Chanda Jothen of Pink Oatmeal. Read her post on how to play with baby on an exercise ball to promote gross motor development.
You can place the ball in front of a mirror (my personal favorite), or an engaging toy, pet, sibling, or other favorite item in order to capture baby’s attention while you playfully sing, count, or hum. If you have never played with baby on an exercise ball and are nervous and them falling off, then it can be a good idea to start out with two grown-ups helping baby just in case. Always make sure you keep two hands on baby while on the ball, and stabilize the ball between your legs if you can to prevent any accidental slips).
4. Offer play time on a slightly squishy surface. You would think this would make things harder, but there’s something about the “give” of a slightly squishy surface that can actually make it easier for babies to experiment with crawling movements on hands and knees. When our first baby was a pre-crawler, we had a couch that had extremely firm cushions. They were not comfortable for relaxation purposes, but they were perfect for play time, especially because they turned the couch into the perfect height as a slightly elevated surface for the hands. Double bonus!
Even if you don’t have uncomfortably firm couch cushions like we did, you can create a similar surface by placing a crib mattress on the floor (maybe next to the couch so baby can reach some toys or preferred items on there), or finding other slightly squishy surfaces such as the tiny toddler fold-out couch pictured below.
5. Roll up a receiving blanket or mini wash cloth and place it under baby’s belly while on hands and knees. Sometimes babies have a hard time figuring out how to get that gut off the ground while also maintaining strength and stability in that quadruped position. For me personally, it felt like my second baby was never going to figure out how to get his lower belly off the ground despite all his tummy time and belly crawling! He was too low to the ground for me to scoot my shin under to support his belly. However, after a few times of placing the little blanket bolster under his lower abs to help him maintain the hands-and-knees position for a few seconds while playing in front of the mirror, things seemed to click for him. Although I know I took a picture of this setup from over a year ago, I haven’t been able to find it in my saved photos. So I want to extend a big thank you to YourTherapySource.com, who graciously offered to do their best to reenact my picture using their current crawler! The setup you’ll see in this picture is a tiny bit different than the way I did it, however, the concept is similar — you’re providing just a little bit of support to help baby get a feel for what it’s like on hands and knees without the belly on the ground as they pose, rock, and reach. You could also take a look at my post filled with tips for making tummy time less miserable to get a visual — just picture Point #6, but with the towel under the lower abs while in quadruped instead of having it under the upper chest.
Take a look at how this little blanket-roll-under-the-belly trick helped baby understand what to do with his knees and lower abs, taking us from photo #2 to photo #3 in the 3-photo collage below:
6. Place motivating items just out of reach. This can occur while on the tummy as well as while in sitting, as both will promote shifting or pulling their weight forward to get the desired items. Stationary items are fine (such as a ring stacker or teething toy), but items that slightly roll when batted at are great because they encourage babies to persist until they finally get a hold of it. Examples of rolling items that encourage crawling include a sensory bottle with interesting items inside, a rattle OBall, small rattle balls, balls with funny textures, or even a rattle car or rolling drum.
7. Let them search for treasure (and embrace the mess!). Nothing seems to be more motivating to pre-crawling babies than all the things you DON’T want them to get, right? For me, that meant things like the already opened, yet unattended, cereal box and my bag of toys for work.
Treasure hunting doesn’t only have to include off-limits items, though! Learn more about how to create a treasure basket to encourage baby to safely explore!
8. Let them crawl through a tunnel. Tunnels can be a great way to encourage crawling and exploration! Some babies may dive right into an empty tunnel out of pure curiosity, while others may like to chase a ball or other preferred item that has been placed just a few inches inside the tunnel. Older babies may enjoy carrying a small item in their hand from one end of the tunnel to the other as they triumphantly place it in a simple container, as seen in this example by a fellow occupational therapy professional. Tunnels can be found at most toy stores or online here.
Don’t have a tunnel? Try a cardboard box! Just make sure you stabilize the sides so it doesn’t tip over sideways.
9. Let them conquer obstacles. Babies can be a determined bunch. Many seem to have a natural desire to seek out challenges and test the limits of what their growing bodies can do. Examples of obstacles may include a runway of pillows, that pile of laundry you’ve been meaning to fold, or those stairs that your baby makes a break for when they think no one is looking. Just be sure to monitor closely for safety when needed.
10. Get them outside. Sometimes a change in context can do wonders for motivation and the desire to explore and crawl. When you can do so safely, allow your almost-crawling baby to explore different outdoor settings such as the park, the patio, the garden, or the sandy beach. Just make sure you bring your ninja-like reflexes with you because, yes, baby will more than likely try to eat a bug or a leaf or a handful of sand.
Before you know it, your little one will be zipping around and you will be asking yourself the same question parents around the globe have been asking for years — “How did they grow up so fast?!”
Related Posts You May Enjoy on Mama OT:
Developmental Milestones for Baby’s First Year
7 Tips for Making Tummy Time a Little Less Miserable
How to Use a Therapy Ball to Make Tummy Time Easier and More Fun
10 Tips for Helping Babies Learn to Roll
Helping Babies Develop Functional Sitting Skills
How to Roll a Ball with Your Baby to Support Development
How to Play on an Exercise Ball with Your Older Baby
. . . . .
(1) Zachry, A. & Kitzmann, K. (2011). Caregiver awareness of prone play recommendations. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65, 101-105. doi:10.5014/ajot.2011.09100
(2) Kuo, Y., Liao, H. Chen, P., Hsieh, W., Hwang, A. (2008). The influence of wakeful prone positioning on motor development during the early life. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 29(5), 367-376. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3181856d54