Infants' avoidance of drop-off reflects specific motor ability, not fear

August 21, 2012, Society for Research in Child Development

Researchers have long studied infants' perceptions of safe and risky ground by observing their willingness to cross a visual cliff, a large drop-off covered with a solid glass surface. In crawling, infants grow more likely to avoid the apparent drop-off, leading researchers to conclude that they have a fear of heights. Now a new study has found that although infants learn to avoid the drop-off while crawling, this knowledge doesn't transfer to walking. This suggests that what infants learn is to perceive the limits of their ability to crawl or walk, not a generalized fear of heights. The findings have implications for infants' safety.

The study, by researchers at New York University, is published in the journal Child Development.

In the study, researchers tested about 50 children, including 12-month-old experienced crawlers, 12-month-old novice walkers, and 18-month-old experienced walkers. Caregivers encouraged the to descend a series of drop-offs that were safe or risky, relative to each of the ' abilities. Instead of a visual cliff with a fixed height, researchers used an actual, adjustable cliff without safety glass with a maximum height of 90 cm; an experimenter rescued infants if they began to fall. On each trial, researchers recorded whether the infants tried to crawl or walk down the drop-off, avoided going at all, or used an alternative backing or scooting strategy.

Experienced crawlers tried to crawl down safe drop-offs within their abilities and refused to crawl down drop-offs that were too large relative to their abilities, the study found. However, novice walkers attempted to walk down impossibly large drop-offs, even the 90-cm cliff. Experienced walkers didn't try to walk down risky drop-offs, but did go down using alternative strategies, indicating that they weren't afraid of the drop-off.

"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. "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."

Adolph noted that the findings also have practical implications for infant safety. When designing safety provisions for young infants, she suggested, special attention should be paid to newly emerging skills as these are the times when infants can't perceive the limits of their own abilities and don't seem to distinguish safe from risky ground.

Explore further: Infants learn to transfer knowledge by 16 months, study finds

Related Stories

Infants learn to transfer knowledge by 16 months, study finds

July 5, 2011
Researchers have identified when an important milestone in infants' development occurs: the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Infant eye movement and cognition

March 9, 2012
Interactions between infants and their environment are limited because of the infants' poor motor abilities. So investigating infant cognition is no easy task. Which sensory event is the result of the infant's own motor action ...

Secure attachment to moms helps irritable babies interact with others

August 30, 2011
Children with difficult temperaments are often the most affected by the quality of their relationships with their caregivers. New research suggests that highly irritable children who have secure attachments to their mothers ...

Recommended for you

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.