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How do babies learn to be careful at the edge of a dropoff? It’s not that they learn when they fall. Babies learn to be afraid of heights even without the experience of falling.

Instead, it appears that babies learn to be cautious just by moving around. Babies too young to crawl learned to avoid drop-offs when they used a go-cart-type device that gave them experience with motion.

Up to about 9 months old, babies seem unconcerned about falling. Every parent knows that unattended infants readily roll off beds or changing tables or tumble down stairs. They seem oblivious to the danger heights pose.

But as soon as a child is able to crawl, she gets more cautious. Joseph Campos, researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, has done a lot of study on this change of perspective. For example, he has found that at about this age, babies pick up cues from trusted adults about unfamiliar situations, including the situation of encountering a dropoff.

In a recent study, published this month in Psychological Science, Campos led a team in understanding if children’s ability to get around helps in developing a fear of heights. The research team gave some babies who hadn’t yet learned to crawl – and who therefore were still unconcerned about heights – experience with a riding toy that permitted them to get around on their own. These go-cart babies quickly became worried whenever they came to an edge, as indicated by increased heart rate. Babies without the go-cart experience showed no anxiety about visual cliffs.

According to Campos, this finding is important because it means the ability to judge the danger of a dropoff doesn’t develop just by growing older. It’s not a maturational thing. Instead, it depends on experience.

For us parents, the take-home message is this: children need experiences. They need to move around and do things. And children who have a disability that limits their mobility or who are restricted in what they’re allowed to do in order to keep them “safe” or out of the way may be delayed in key cognitive accomplishments.

If just being able to move around is so important, what else matters too? It’s important to let kids be kids.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.