Stepping on ground can be evoked in human neonates, though it is rather irregular and stereotyped heel-to-toe roll-over pattern is lacking. Such investigations can provide insights into the role of contact- or load-related proprioceptive feedback during early development of locomotion. However, the detailed characteristics of foot placements and their association with motor patterns are still incompletely documented. We elicited stepping in 33 neonates supported on a table. Unilateral limb kinematics, bilateral plantar pressure distribution and EMG activity from up to 11 ipsilateral leg muscles were recorded. Foot placement characteristics in neonates showed a wide variation. In ~25% of steps, the swinging foot stepped onto the contralateral foot due to generally small step width. In the remaining steps with separate foot placements, the stance phase could start with forefoot (28%), midfoot (47%), or heel (25%) touchdowns. Despite forefoot or heel initial contacts, the kinematic and loading patterns markedly differed relatively to toe-walking or adult-like two-peaked vertical force profile. Furthermore, while the general stepping parameters (cycle duration, step length, range of motion of proximal joints) were similar, the initial foot contact was consistently associated with specific center-of-pressure excursion, range of motion in the ankle joint, and the center-of-activity of extensor muscles (being shifted by ~5% of cycle toward the end of stance in the "heel" relative to "forefoot" condition). In sum, we found a variety of footfall patterns in conjunction with associated changes in motor patterns. These findings suggest the potential contribution of load-related proprioceptive feedback and/or the expression of variations in the locomotor program already during early manifestations of stepping on ground in human babies.
- Journal Article