by Stacy M. Menz
Over the last few years many of my friends and relatives have had kids of their own. As a result I often get questions from them regarding what their baby or child should be doing. I understand that advice and opinions can be taken with a grain of salt and everybody does things differently but I thought I'd share with you, the top pieces of advice I've given as a result of all the questions.
Tummy Time, Tummy Time and More Tummy Time: This is my number one piece of advice to all new parents. I've been to a lot of baby showers and some of them have you offer an anonymous piece of advice to the new mom, well mine's never anonymous because it usually always reads 'Lots of Tummy Time!'. I just think (and research has shown) that this position is the building block of movement. It helps the baby to begin to develop their head control, strengthen their arms and shoulder girdles, begin activating their gluts which will help to facilitate their hip and femur bony development, and stretch out the front of their body which has been squished into flexion for the last 9 months to name a few. It also gives them some control of their environment. If they are lying on their backs they are waiting for toys to be brought to them, on their tummy they can begin to figure out how to move or pivot to get to what they want. Also, it helps to facilitate them getting into a sidelying position which is really important for trunk development. With the implementation of the Back to Sleep program and the busier lifestyles of families and the conveniences that have been developed (bouncy chairs, exersaucers, click and go car seats) parents have to make a point of allowing their child to spend time on their belly.
• Give them motivation and a challenge: This is in response to how to get their kids to move. Now some kids may have other challenges going on but the same ideas still apply. If you want your child to move don't put everything right in their reach. I remember going to a family's house and they were concerned because all their daughter did was sit in one spot and didn't attempt to move. When I looked to where she was sitting, she was on her blanket with every toy she could possibly want right in front of her. She has no reason to move! Find out what is motivating for your child, let them engage with it and then move it just a little bit out of their reach. Let them try to struggle and figure out what they need to do to get to it. The struggle is part of the learning process. Its when they get to figure out what their body can and can't do and how to react to any changes. This is where motor planning is developed. Now, I don't torture the kids, I will usually let them try to figure it out and then assist them into having some success so they can play with whatever motivates them and then move it out of reach again and start all over. Over Christmas my cousin's little girl really wanted to move but couldn't figure out what she needed to do. We put the little baby doll that she wanted a little bit in front of her and then I gave her some assistance at the legs so she could push herself along the floor. After a few tries she started to grasp that by moving her body she was able to get to her toy. That awareness helped her to pick up the skill even faster.
• Less Equipment, More Floor Time - I know its a challenge in this day and age to avoid the plethora of equipment that is available for kids and babies because they make parents lives easier and can keep kids contained and occupied. However, this limits their chances for movement, sensory and environmental exploration. Equipment such as exersaucers and bumbo chairs, while not bad when used in moderation or for therapeutic purposes with kiddos who need extra support, can get in the way of movement development if used excessively. Kids benefit from practicing figuring out sitting and standing through trial and error, not to mention they develop their motor planning by figuring out what works and what doesn't work as they not only try to maintain sitting and standing but also work to get into those positions. By just putting your kiddos in bumbo chairs and exersaucers all day long (okay exaggeration there to help my point) they are getting extra stability and support that they wouldn't normally have when trying to explore the motion on their own. Now I'm not saying don't use equipment but be aware of how much time your child gets for floor time.
• Practice, Repetition, Consistency - A lot of times parents, or my friends have questions about how to teach their child a new skill. Obviously depending on the skill there are going to be different techniques involved but a big factor is that to master a new skill kids (and adults) need lots of practice, repetition and consistency. If you want your child to learn how to get off the couch without diving head first then every time you get them off the couch help them to turn around and go down feet first (it even helps if you add a consistent phrase to the activity). If you pick them up and set them down on the floor every time it doesn't give them any frame of reference. Same for a kiddo learning to sit up on their own. If they are lying down and you want to get them into sitting, help them move through the motions of getting into sitting rather than picking them up and placing them in a nice sitting position. In the beginning you will probably have to help them a lot but they will start to get the hang of it and figure it out on their own. Feel free to apply this concept to almost any skill your child is working to develop.
• Development isn't always linear - My friend was commenting that every time she would start to get concerned about the fact that her baby wasn't reaching a skill/milestone (and didn't appear to be even close to reaching that milestone) it was as if the next day all of a sudden they were performing the very same skill that she was concerned about. I have seen with a lot of the kids that I work with (for both developmental milestones and for more challenging motor skills) that often times the child is working on the pieces of a skill. For instance, if your child isn't rolling over yet or even looking like they are attempting to, but they are on their belly and turning their head or lifting their bottom or trying to maneuver their arms, they are moving their body to try to figure out how their muscles work. They could be practicing different components such as weight shifting from side to side or activating their flexor muscles (abs) all of which are key ingredients for rolling over. After practicing the components all of a sudden (it seems like) they are able to put them together and perform the whole skill! So what I explained to my friend is that sometimes development can look like a series of steps as opposed to a smooth line. On the flat part of the step is when they are practicing the pieces and then all of a sudden they put it together and move up to the next step.
• Provide opportunities - I'm going to relate this one to tummy time but it can be related to almost any area of development such as drinking out of a cup, feeding, potty training, etc. When my friend first started doing tummy time with her baby he hated it (a common theme from parents) and someone told her not to worry about it because kids do things in their own time. I agree with this statement however kids need to be given the opportunity to try out and practice the skill. So in the case of tummy time, your child is never going to learn to love it or get the benefits of it unless they are given the opportunity to be on their belly. This can look like having them on their belly for brief periods of time on different surfaces such as a big exercise ball or on your chest (while you are lying down) or on a piece of kid safe mirror (they love looking at their reflection). If you give them short experiences of tummy time in different ways so that they are getting a new experience and they are distracted from the fact that they 'don't like' tummy time, they can eventually get the hang of it and in the meantime they get to work on all the skills that tummy time supports so that they can better develop their gross motor abilities. By continually providing opportunities for a skill you are also more likely to figure out when 'their own time' is.