The impact of errors in infant development: Falling like a baby

Danyang Han, Karen E. Adolph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What is the role of errors in infants' acquisition of basic skills such as walking, skills that require immense amounts of practice to become flexible and generative? Do infants change their behaviors based on negative feedback from errors, as suggested by “reinforcement learning” in artificial intelligence, or do errors go largely unmarked so that learning relies on positive feedback? We used falling as a model system to examine the impact of errors in infant development. We examined fall severity based on parent reports of prior falls and videos of 563 falls incurred by 138 13- to 19-month-old infants during free play in a laboratory playroom. Parent reports of notable falls were limited to 33% of infants and medical attention was limited to 2% of infants. Video-recorded falls were typically low-impact events. After falling during free play in the laboratory, infants rarely fussed (4% of falls), caregivers rarely showed concern (8% of falls), and infants were back at play within seconds. Impact forces were mitigated by infants' effective reactive behaviors, quick arrest of the fall before torso or head impact, and small body size. Moreover, falling did not alter infants' subsequent behavior. Infants were not deterred from locomotion or from interacting with the objects and elevations implicated in their falls. We propose that a system that discounts the impact of errors in early stages of development encourages infants to practice basic skills such as walking to the point of mastery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13069
JournalDevelopmental science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • errors
  • falling
  • negative feedback
  • reinforcement learning
  • walking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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