Fun fact: all babies are born NOT scared of heights! That may seem odd given that many adults are scared of heights. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense- when you stand on the edge of a tall building, your natural instinct is to move away from the edge to prevent falling over. But why aren’t babies scared?
Previously, experts were convinced that:
1. Infants haven’t developed depth perception so they can’t tell when they are high up
2. Infants haven’t experienced falling so they don’t know that it is dangerous
But both of these theories were debunked in several experiments. What researchers did find was that infants generally became scared of edges and cliffs at around 9 months old, the same time when most of them learn to crawl.
The go-kart experiment
In an experiment conducted at UC Berkeley, researchers gathered babies who could not yet crawl and trained half of them with a go-kart. The go-kart group experienced what it was like to move around in the go-kart, simulating the experience of crawling. The other group did not experience moving in go-karts.
After training, both groups were confronted with a ‘virtual cliff’. It was essentially a cliff with a piece of glass over it, so that researchers could see how the babies react when they approached the cliff. The go-kart group showed an increase in heart rate as they approached the cliff indicating fear and stress, while the other group did not.
What about the go-kart training made the babies scared of heights?
Researchers speculate that the babies who received go-kart training learned to use visual cues about their environment while they were moving. For example, when you’re walking in the city, you use visual cues to understand where to walk, how fast to walk, and importantly, where not to walk (like on a busy road or on uneven terrain). Babies may only begin doing this when they start moving, so when the go-kart group approached the edge of a drop-off, a lot of the visual information was lost, which caused them to panic.
The significance of these findings
There is often a debate between ‘nurture vs. nature’ (learned vs. innate) in child development research, and it seems that the fear of heights is dependent on very specific experiences. As such, babies who have delays in crawling may also have delays in developing a wariness of heights. The good thing is that there are some ways you can encourage your baby to crawl, which you can find here!