Editor's Note

Common Ground

baby crawling


A baby learning to walk falls 39 times per hour of motion. Such frequent falling gets mundane to everyone involved: In 91 percent of falls, neither baby nor caregiver reacts. No wailing, no running over to check for boo-boos. And babies typically go back to whatever they were doing within 2 seconds of falling.

I learned these factoids from Karen Adolph, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Applied Psychology and Neuroscience at New York University, and also Principal Investigator of the Infant Action Lab. Dr. Adolph was the keynote speaker at November’s Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy Annual Conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Her keynote was about how babies learn to walk, how and when they learn strategies such as backing down a steep incline rather than trying to walk down it, and what environmental factors — diapers, snowsuits! — impact efficient walking.

Of course, with my background in seating and wheeled mobility, I had different takeaways.

For instance, Dr. Adolph noted that despite how often babies fall, they don’t get discouraged. They don’t decide, “Nope, upright is for suckers.” Babies keep trying to walk. And in around 100 days, they master it. They can walk, they can turn while walking, they can trot gracefully, at least as much as a bulky diaper under a bulkier snowsuit will allow.

When it comes to independent mobility, typically developing babies find a way. And they are given plenty of time and space to learn.

Why don’t children with mobility challenges get that same chance?

Expectations for a child trying a wheelchair seem so much higher. Here’s a child who usually hasn’t experienced crawling, rolling, or any other form of independent mobility. But he or she is plunked into a self-propelled manual wheelchair or a power chair, and if that kid isn’t able to drive perfectly right away — without hitting anything, and while executing commands called out by adults — we so often hear He can’t do it, or She isn’t ready.

If the child mashes the joystick down and holds it there, turning in circles, adults jump in: “No, drive straight! Drive to the traffic cone over there.” When a child in a self-propelled chair grabs a tire in each hand and pulls back toward himself, thereby rolling backward, adults say, “No, you need to go forward. Push to that traffic cone over there.” If there isn’t swift compliance, the trial often comes to a quick end.

A baby learning to walk lurches and staggers. Falls over. Gets up. Leans left. Falls down. Stands up. Takes a step backward. Falls down. Stands up. Adults let it happen because they know mobility is a learning process.

Kids who use wheelchairs deserve the same opportunity to learn, and to learn their way, with enough time to become proficient. This is what typically developing children get. Our kids shouldn’t be any different.

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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