Recent studies confirm the connection between physical activity and enhanced cognitive functioning in children, middle-aged adults, even the elderly. Exercise builds muscle, increases coordination, strengthens immunity, speeds metabolism, elevates moods and activates the mind. So, there’s hope for us all if we can just keep moving.
Thankfully, our infants don’t need to go to the gym, take exercise classes, or be transformed by private trainers from round cherubs into buff babies for the joyful habit of physical activity to become deeply ingrained in them. All they need is time to do what children do best – play! Since our babies quickly become accustomed to the routines that we establish, infancy is the best and easiest time for us to help our child begin the healthy habit of active play.
Infants and toddlers are discovering how their bodies work. They need to be unencumbered by baby equipment and the adjusting and positioning of adults so that they can safely find balance and self-reliance. The challenge for parents is to trust rather than teach (because teaching means interfering) and to let our baby show us what he is ready to do by doing it himself — naturally.
Allowing for free movement means losing bouncy seats, swings, jumpers and walkers, limiting the use of carriers, slings and strollers, all of which restrict our baby and/or do the activity for him. The position which allows our infant maximum mobility is on his back. (Try giving yourself ‘tummy time’ and feel how less mobile you are.) For the first weeks, infants do not need much space, but their safe play area should grow as they do, so they continue to have ample room to move. A safe outdoor play area is best whenever possible.
Here are some immediate and long term benefits of baby exercise:
1) Physical fitness, obesity prevention. Physical activity, not just the organized kind, but free, active play helps prevent obesity. It is so much easier to form healthy habits when our children are small than it is to break the habit of less independent, more passive, sedentary activities when they are school age. Giving babies plenty of time for free play may not solve this complex issue, but it’s a scoot in the right direction, and it’s something we can all do.
2) Cognitive functioning. No matter how laid-back some of us may appear we all want our children’s brains to function at peak capacity. There are new studies every week confirming the positive effects of physical activity on attention span, achievement, test scores, and memory. So, let’s allow our children to get a move on and take full advantage.
3) Eat, Sleep, Digestion. When a baby has opportunities to move his limbs, extend and stretch his back, eventually propel himself to roll, scoot and crawl, he eats better, sleeps more restfully, and his bowels work better. As many of us recognize, these benefits of physical activity continue into adulthood.
4) Self-confidence and independence. Our babies are born to us wholly dependent. The one way they can experience a taste of independence and begin to understand and express ‘self’ is through self-initiated play and movement. An infant who has ample opportunity to experiment and test his physical abilities without adult assistance becomes a tenacious problem solver. And learning he can overcome obstacles builds self-confidence (like finally finding the know-how to move that arm that keeps getting stuck beneath him as he rolls onto his belly).
5) Grace, poise, assuredness and more. World renowned Hungarian pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler went against the grain in 1946 when she advocated natural gross motor development — “non-interference” in a healthy child’s development. She studied the contrasts between the children who had been taught, propped, positioned and restricted in devices like infant seats, walkers and bouncers, and those who were given freedom of movement and allowed to develop at their own rate. Dr. Pikler found that the natural approach not only affected the quality of motor skills, but also influenced “all other areas of growth – social, emotional, cognitive – and even character development.” “Pikler babies”, as the children in her practice were known, could be easily distinguished at the parks in Budapest, because they were “poised and graceful, alert and friendly, and so confidently independent.”
6) Safety. When our infant spends his day developing motor skills naturally, he becomes well-practiced and deeply in tune with his physical capabilities. He has better control and takes only calculated risks. These children learn to fall safely and get up again, and they seldom have serious physical accidents.
7) Relaxation, mood elevation, clarity. Moving our bodies can bring us out of even the deepest doldrums. My most creative ideas, and solutions to issues I thought I’d never find my way around suddenly materialize in the alert-relaxed state I’m in when I run. I can only imagine what babies are dreaming up as they stretch, twist, pivot, flex their feet and grasp their toes. I know I get a big kick out of watching them.
Giving our infants a safe environment with opportunities for free, unconfined, and self-directed movement fosters their innate desire to explore, practice and perfect physical skills. They are then naturally geared toward a lifelong inclination to exercise, which (as stacks of research conclude) will lead them to a longer, healthier, (brainier) and happier life.
So, as babies might all say if they could, “Let’s roll.”