Toddlers keep falling when toddling, why do they keep going?

Reference: Han, D., & Adolph, K. E. (2020). The impact of errors in infant development: Falling like a baby. Developmental Science, e13069.

Babies’ first steps are exciting. For many parents, it was a transformative moment: what was a little clump of cuteness a moment ago suddenly turns into a full-fledged tiny human. But the babies’ first steps can also be stressful for many. The word we use to describe new walkers, “toddlers”, has already hinted at how unsteady their paces would be. Beginner walkers are constant fallers. As the new walkers eagerly put their two legs into use, they will have to go through many “oopsie” moments where the walks end prematurely on their own butts. 

Toddlers fall a lot, but they are quick to recover

Scientists have estimated that the average rate of falling is about 17 times per hour (1). At first glance, this number seems alarming. 17 falls per hour translate to a fall about every four minutes. If this is true, should parents be more worried about the toddlers’ safety and increase the “babyproof” level at home? Before rushing to cover every inch of the floor with cushions and playmats, new parents may want to know this: in many cases, the toddlers themselves probably couldn’t care less about the falls. 

A recent study conducted by Danyang Han and Karen Adolph from New York University carefully examined the severity of toddler falls and how these falls influence toddlers’ subsequent behaviors. In this study, they analyzed video recordings of 138 toddlers’ free play sessions. These toddlers’ age ranged from 13 to 19 months, and their walking experience varied from as little as 2 days to as much as 9 months. The babies and parents were invited into the laboratory’s playroom for free play. In some sessions, the playroom had furniture and miscellaneous toys; in others, the room was empty. In all the play sessions, there was always a parent in the room with the baby while an experimenter recorded baby play. 

Most of the time a toddler falls, there’s no fuss.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In analyzing the recordings, Han and Adolph considered many characteristics of the falls. For example, did the toddlers “fuss” after the fall? After the fall, how long did it take for the toddler to go back to playing? After coding the video recordings frame by frame, the researchers revealed an interesting picture: out of the 563 falls that occurred in the recordings, 90.76% of them were considered “uneventful”, which means that toddlers themselves did not scream, did not cry, and did not even look upset. They were also quick to recover: On average, it took them 1.84 seconds to get back on their feet.

Moreover, the falls didn’t seem to discourage toddlers from walking more afterward. Han and Adolph compared the “resting time” on the floor (from when babies recovered from their falls to when they started to walk again) between when the toddlers fell and when they deliberately decided to sit on the floor. Intriguingly, they found that the babies were actually faster to start walking again when they accidentally fell compared to when they decided to sit and play on the floor. And after toddlers resumed walking, they played just as much with the object and in the places involved in the fall.

We showed that a low penalty for errors (here, low-impact, low-cost falls) are adaptive for learning because infants won’t get discouraged from trying, which is likely the real key for acquiring generative, flexible skills such as walking.

Quote from Karen Adolph on why this research is exciting.

Walking is rewarding

These results are reassuring, but you may be asking yourself: Why aren’t the babies deterred by their falls? As the saying “once bitten twice shy” suggests, you might reasonably expect babies to be more reluctant to walk after their falls. But the empirical evidence clearly suggests the opposite: the toddlers were not disturbed at all. What could explain this pattern? 

One explanation is that these falls are relatively “low cost” to the babies, in the sense that the falls do not cost as much as the pain or injury had they happened to adults. Toddlers are shorter, lighter, and they walk slower. These factors create smaller impacts when infants’ bodies land on the ground. Han and Adolph estimated that the impact energy generated by infant falls would be 18 times greater if infants were of adult size and walked at adult speeds. In addition, infants quickly display a suit of behaviors that further mitigate fall impacts: They take small, reactive steps to try to recover balance, grab nearby supports, bend their knees in landing, and reach out their hands to break their fall.

Another part of the story is the high reward associated with walking. Walking enables babies to see further and see more. When babies move on their feet, the higher view enables them to see things that they could not have seen when crawling. An earlier study conducted by Adolph and her colleagues directly compared what crawling babies and walking babies see (2). They found that the walkers’ highest visible viewpoint was almost twice as high as the crawlers’. The high viewpoint enables the walking babies to see more things in the distance, whereas the crawling babies’ visual experiences are dominated by floors. Researchers hypothesize that the richness of visual experiences offered by walking is a high reward to infants. The high reward of walking coupled with the low cost of falling may encourage newly walking babies to keep trying. To use an analogy, the reason why babies keep walking despite constant falling is similar to why people go hiking. Although there are risks and discomforts along the way, the rewarding view at the top of a peak makes every step along the way worthwhile.

Toddlers: If at first you fall… try, try again

Toddlers are tenacious. They fall. They get back up. They fall again, and they get back up again. In Han and Adolph’s study, they even observed a baby who fell 15 times during a 20-minute play session. After each fall, the baby always immediately got back up and tried again. These falling episodes might look amusing and occasionally concerning in the moment. But in just a few years, the baby who keeps falling will become a hopping and skipping child. Falls are challenging yet necessary parts of the journey, and toddlers are not afraid to take them. 

Additional References:

(1) Adolph, K. E., Cole, W. G., Komati, M., Garciaguirre, J. S., Badaly, D., Lingeman, J. M., … & Sotsky, R. B. (2012). How do you learn to walk? Thousands of steps and dozens of falls per day. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1387-1394.

(2) Kretch, K. S., Franchak, J. M., & Adolph, K. E. (2014). Crawling and walking infants see the world differently. Child Development85(4), 1503-1518.