Exercise Affects Baby Brains – And 6 Other Reasons To Let Your Baby Move

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 babies and/or do the activity for them. The position which allows our infants maximum mobility is on their 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.  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 babies have opportunities to move their limbs, extend and stretch their backs, eventually propel themselves to roll, scoot and crawl, they eat better, sleep more restfully, and their 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 their physical abilities without adult assistance becomes a tenacious problem solver. And learning they can overcome obstacles builds self-confidence (like finally finding the know-how to move that arm that keeps getting stuck beneath them as they roll onto their 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 infants spend their day developing motor skills naturally, they become well-practiced and deeply in tune with their physical capabilities. They have better control and take 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.”

For more about natural gross motor development, please read Don’t Stand Me Up and Set Me Free (No Baby Equipment Needed)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet, Thanks for stopping by supermomplace, although we may not agree on certain form of discipline I found your parenting advice very interesting. It is something a good thing to have other people disagree with you, it keep your mind going!

    Hope we can discuss some more
    Happy blogging!

    1. Thanks! I agree with you 100%. Discussions and disagreements are helpful and healthy for all of us. And for our children, too. Happy blogging!

  2. I love this! I am from India married to an american and a new mom. Everyone around me kept telling me, oh! you need the swing, bouncer etc for your baby and I kept asking my husband why? He said he has no idea, lol. I told him that I did not grow up with these toys and the need to be constantly entertained 24 hours a day is just ridiculous to me. So, I completely agree and love what you have written here.Thank you for an informative and wonderful article.

    1. Hi Tina!

      Thanks! You are much smarter than I was, because I assumed I needed all those things at first, and I entertained my first baby like crazy. My post Blue Sky Thinking describes my “awakening.” Life and parenting are so much simpler when we trust our babies…and nature. You will never regret getting rid of the gizmos and helping your baby stay inner-directed.

    2. My foster baby came to us still suffering withdrawal symptoms pretty badly at six weeks.
      He could not be treated with medication.
      He had barely any working reflexes or any he had were very jerky and not consistent.
      We actually taught him to hold a tiny toy, to roll him on the floor. He was super vigilant, but physical unable to do much.
      His Paediatrician asked me when he was six mth old to just leave him lying on the floor as much as possible, we also got a book to follow with more exercises as he was been flagged with cerebral palsy.
      Our intense but playful exercising showed results slowly. His brain ‘woke up’ .
      With nine month he suddenly stood up, decided to walk holding on to furniture and walked by himself about just before his first birthday.
      As soon as he became physically more active he also showed for the first time that he had initiative,
      Yes your article is so true.
      As foster parents we have to achieve milestones for our children, this is a must and not helpful when you’d like a child to follow his own way… but the paediatric neurologist thought he might have still be laying happily watching the ceiling

  3. Moving indeed gets all stuck energy out or tranfsorms it into creativity! I coudn’t agree more Janet. And yes being present as a parent (and that can be in many different ways, even 1 minute a day) makes that difference of connecting. At least that is my humble opinion.

  4. Hi Janet, thanks for the great post. What are your thoughts on sleeping sacks? Obviously these are great in preventing sheets and blankets being kicked off but I assume they do restrict a lot of movement? My LO is just 4 months old so just rolling at the moment but wondering about when she is able to stand, the sleeping sack will prevent her from doing so in her cot which I have been advised by friends is a good thing. I’m not so sure? Appreciate your thoughts.

    1. Hi Jade! Sleep sacks are wonderful in the first months and preferable to swaddling because your baby can move. By the time your little one’s standing, I think it’s best to have her out of the sleep sack and just in warm PJs. Why do your friends believe that baby’s shouldn’t stand in their cots? I haven’t heard that before…

  5. Thanks so much for your reply, I think a friend mentioned in a sleep sack they think it’s safer for them not to be able to stand and try to climb out of the cot. Anyway thanks again!

    1. Patty Agacki says:

      sleep sacks do not prevent a determined baby/toddler from standing or walking…therefor they are more of a danger…sleep sacks were designed as more od a SIDS prevention. When my boys were little we had blanket sleepers that had arms,legs and feet.

  6. sehrish haider says:

    Hey janet…i realy liked your post but i have a question..sometimes you realy need your toddler to be in a buggy/baby chair/restricted devices like if you go for shopping or want him to sit in the baby-chair at restaurants what must be done for that?I have eleven months old baby,he is very acive,i let him play all day in his safe area and even around the house but he gives me super tough time when we go for grocery or dine out…he wants to be picked up at grocery stores or at restaurants asks me to let him sit on the table so that he can play with spoons and knives,pepper and salt bottles…please help

    1. Sehrish, it is wonderful that you are giving your baby so much time free to move. In the long run, that freedom will make him more patient about agreeing to sit when he has to sit. But at eleven months this can be a BIG struggle, because his motor skills are developing rapidly and he’s excited…he doesn’t want to be restricted. Remember that you are the parent in charge and that it’s healthy for your boy not to agree with everything you insist he does. I would clearly let him know that he must stay in his seat (or on your lap) in the restaurant, even though he “asks” to sit on the table. If you’ve been letting him sit on the table, tell him next time that you are sorry, but he must sit safely in his seat. Bring some small toys or objects for him to play with while he sits. Or, for the time being, consider getting take-out and enjoying it in the park or at home. Always insist that he sits when he is actually eating, though. Don’t let him walk around with food.

  7. Hello, I really love your website and the advice you post. This article really makes sense but I do have one question. We brought the baby home last night and I put him in warm clothes to sleep in because he seemed to hate swaddling and it seems like he would like to move around. But when ever I lay him down after I put him to sleep he starts moving his arms a whole lot and then wakes himself up. After about 4 hours of sitting with him and putting him back to sleep every 15 minutes or so I swaddled him tight and he went right to sleep and slept really good. Then today I didn’t swaddle him at all and let him move around as much as he wanted unless he was crying.

    That whole story is so I can get to my question: is swaddling his arms tight (I leave his legs loose so he can kick) so he can sleep ok if I let him play during the day? Also is it ok for his mommy to swaddle him when he’s ready to sleep so she can sleep longer then 15 minutes at a time? He sleeps really good/happily swaddled but I also want him to not feel overly restricted.

    1. Great questions, Brian. At RIE we recommend minimal to no swaddling. Have you looked into a sleep sack? It keeps the baby cozy without being totally confining.

  8. This is not new. If people have the chance to read more about Maria Montessori,will noticed that Dr Pilker and Magda Gerber are using Dr Montessori’s studies way back in the early 1920.

  9. Thanks for a super article that highlights the benefit of exercise for children. I teach baby yoga and have shared your article.

  10. Really enjoyed your post Janet. I think you and others interested in this will be interested in http://www.babybwell.co.uk – my new information website that promotes best practice when using infant car seats. Great to get your thoughts!

  11. Hi Janet,

    Your stuff has really challenged my thinking and has encouraged what is now a beautiful relationship with my 6-week-old.

    I have a question, though. You may have written this in another blog, but what do you suggest parents do with a newborn/infant when they need to get things done. I have avoided buying a bouncer or swing or anything like that, but my girl starts screaming after being alone on her back in the pack-n-play for more than 7-10 minutes. What do I do when this screaming happens? I have been splitting time between Moby-wrapping her, pack and play, and holding her (with more time spent holding her than the formers). Are there any other options that will be beneficial to her? Will she get used to alone time in the pack and play eventually? How long is it okay to let her cry in there?


    1. Hi Terrence! Congratulations on your daughter! When she complains or cries, respond immediately, but that doesn’t mean you need to scoop her up. TALK to her… Acknowledge, “You sound uncomfortable… what can I do to help?” Try doing less first… like maybe gently massaging her tummy (if you think she might have a gas bubble), etc. In other words, don’t panic or jump to conclusions…be patient… If she continues to complain or escalates, definitely offer (asking first), “Do you want me to pick you up?” Slowing down this whole process will give her more time to settle into this situaion. Just go a LITTLE bit at a time, holding her when she needs to be held. If you really need to do something, it’s okay for her to cry where she is for a minute or two, but I would not leave her for longer than that. This WILL get easier.. just be aware of the times that she is happy on her own…and try not to interrupt. Gradually, she will be “playing” more and more. Enjoy!

    2. Pick up your baby and comfort her. She’s a newborn. Carrying babies in a sling or similar helps solve this issue. Babies have been worn for as long as humanity has been around and continue to be worn in traditional cultures. Contrary to what some people believe, carrying babies in a sling DOES help strengthen them as they continuously feel the need to shift around in it to compensate and maintain balance as parent moves around. It’s a genius way to help develop their vestibular system. Besides so many other benefits to them. Do the research!

  12. Dear Janet, thank you for the valueable knowledge you share with all of us. my son is going to be 15 month next week. I am fullday working woman. when i am not home he is very good with his caregiver and plays well and eats well. when I get home he becomes super fussy and doesnt leave me for a while, doesnt take much interest with play. only plays when i am arround or sitting in my lap, wants me to carry him all the time. please guide me how to relax him and myself.

  13. Vicki Burgess says:

    Janet, I am so happy to see this post as I see parents putting their babies in contraptions before they can stand, or sit, and in walkers, thinking walkers help a baby walk. Point to make is our Emily had the opportunity to be in a safe, clean environment where she could be mobile. At age 12 months, she was busy walking around with much energy, while the neighbor’s grandson, Grant, was still trying to pull himself up with the aid of furnishings. His father, a child neuropsychologist believed putting him in a walker. Grant was 13 months and not walking. I asked him if in his studies he had come across Magda Gerber, and he never heard of her. Even before studying ECE, as a mother, I avoided any item until my baby crawled, pulled themselves up on their own and began to walk. This child neuropsychologist told me, “Okay, the next children, no walker!” I am amazed that this information that you posted isn’t out there for even the top, like our neighbor’s son, who definitely cares to do the optimal best for his babies as well as others. Keep posting! I’ll keep sharing.

  14. I just survived another baby shower where moms of little ones gave the mom-to-be all sorts of containment devices for babies, assuring her “you won’t believe how much you’ll rely on this!” I felt like the curmudgeon in the crowd but these products are so forcefully pushed on new parents that they come to believe they must have all these ways to strap in and contain babies and toddlers. I gave a curmudgeon gift, a sturdy quilt that I assured her was perfect to put out on the grass so the baby could look at wind moving through the trees.

    1. Hahahahha! I love the curmudgeon gift, Laura. My kind of curmudgeon!

  15. My newest grandchild is a girl and she was born at 28 gestational weeks. Her prematurity has not slowed her down. She is very mobile and pulls herself up to a standing position. She has become quite adept at moving around and getting down herself. Today I observed her explore the play area which is a library in the home turned into a free space for the babies. There is a 29 month old too. Well our little girl today crawled onto the lower bookshelf where toys are set. I watched as she solved all the problems to get her body onto the shelf and off of it too. She was able to touch the object of her goal. Anything that is her brother’s is her target and she wanted to get to his cement truck, and other construction vehicles he has for play. I enjoyed observing her expression of satisfaction.

  16. Hi Janet,

    I’ve been giving my baby freedom of movement, but she is almost 8 months old and hasn’t started crawling or isn’t really able to sit. Should I be worried? Is her gross motor movement delayed? I’m not sure

    1. Yes I have the same question

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