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Infants Movements Guided by Motor Ability And Not Fear

Update Date: Aug 21, 2012 08:06 AM EDT

Infants' perception of risk and safety has always been an interesting area of research, and various studies have been conducted so far to observe and understand their willingness to cross a visual cliff, a large drop-off covered with a solid glass surface. 

After gaining crawling for sometimes, infants tend to start avoiding cliffs and apparent drop offs, which has always made researchers believe that they do so due to the fear of heights. 

However, a new study claims that infants learn to avoid the drop-off not because of fear of heights, but because they learn to perceive the limits of their ability to crawl or walk. 

For the study, researchers from New York University observed around 50 children, including 12-month-old experienced crawlers, 12-month-old novice walkers, and 18-month-old experienced walkers. 

For the study, the caretakers were asked to encourage the children to walk down series of drop-offs that were safe or risky, depending on the ability of the infant.  

The visual cliffs were adjustable, and created by the researchers without safety glass, with a maximum height of 90 cm. An experiment would prevent the infants from falling if they were about to. 

For every trial, the researchers made records of when an infant tried to crawl or walk down the drop-off, avoided going at all, or used an alternative backing or scooting strategy, Medical Xpress reported. 

It was found that experienced crawlers tried crawling down safe drop-offs but refused to crawl down too-large, or drop-offs that were beyond their ability.

However, new crawlers, went ahead to crawl even on impossibly large drop-offs, even the 90-cm cliff. Experienced walkers didn't attempt on walking down risky drop-offs but used alternative strategies to go down. This meant that they were not scared of the heights. 

"These results suggest that the classic explanation for why infants come to avoid a drop-off-fear of heights-is incorrect," according to Karen E. Adolph, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, one of the study's coauthors, in the news release. "Our results have important theoretical implications for the field of child development, suggesting that some of the general knowledge that infants appear to gain early in life may in fact be highly specific and tightly linked to their emerging motor abilities." 

The study has implications for infant safety, noted Adolph. Also, she suggested that special attention needs to be paid to infants developing newly skills since infants cannot perceive the difference between safety and risky and their own capabilities at this time.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

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