One of my sisters is absolutely terrified of heights. I grew out of my fear by high school, and to this day, heights don’t particularly cause my palms to sweat. However, a fear of heights is a pretty typical fear, especially for children and adolescents and with good reason. Falling from something tall can hurt an awful lot. That’s why researchers find it slightly odd that infants don’t start to fear height until they are about nine months old.

Children have a curious lack of fear about heights when they are infants. According to new research published in Psychological Science, infants seems almost drawn to drop offs and they have no problem scooting off the side of a bed, table, or staircase given the opportunity to do so.

Psychological scientists Audun Dahl, Joseph Campos, David Anderson, and Ichiro Uchiyama of the University of California, Berkeley, and Doshisha University, Kyoto had a theory that in order to develop a healthy fear of heights, children must first learn to at least crawl. Rolling and scooting are the first major movements that infants learn, but reserachers believe it’s not enough to make them fear falling.

For the study, researcher randomly assigned infants to receive training in a powered go-cart designed for babies. This was to provide them with locomotor experience to see if it would provoke them to start avoiding heights and ledges. The other babies in the study were no provided with any means of transportation and they served at the control group.

The ensuing data revealed that the infants who used the go-carts showed an increase in heart rate when they were confronted with a virtual drop-off. This indicated that they feared the drop. The infants in the control group showed now increase in heart rate when confronted with the same drop-off.

It was revealed that as infants gain more visual information about their surroundings and realize that their movement is controlled relative to their environment, they become more wary of ledges and drop-offs. This is because visual information is lost at a drop-off, and this makes them wary about getting too close. The researchers noted that "these new findings indicate that infants do not follow a maturational script, but depend on quite specific experiences to bring about a developmental change.”

This also revealed the infants with delayed locomotor experience are more likely to be unafraid of heights for a longer period of time and may help parents to identify delays much earlier than usual.

Source: Association for Psychological Science (2013, July 24). How do babies learn to be wary of heights? ScienceDaily.

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