As a fitness professional, I field a lot of questions dealing with workouts, wellness, and everywhere in between. Friends, family, and clients will commonly inquire, “Hey Taylor, is ______________ good for me?” or “Will______________ help me loose weight?”. In general, I’m pretty used to questions focused on the desired outcomes of those who are teen-aged or older — you know, grown adults. With that said, I was a little taken aback when an expecting couple I am acquainted with asked me what a professional in my position would recommend for a baby.
I succinctly said, “Silly pregnant couple, babies don’t even lift. Stop wasting my time.”
No, that’s not what I responded with. You see, my perception on childhood development has evolved over the last few years. In that time, my wife and I have had our own children and while I used to vouch for a “live and let live” approach, I have since come to a different understanding. You might have once heard me saying, “Nature wills out” when it comes to rearing your rug-rat, yet I now firmly feel there are critical things you can do to give your youngster a leg up in the world. Here’s four.
1. Put That Kid on Their Belly!
I recently heard the quote, “The floor is a child’s neurological workshop” and I couldn’t agree more. When your little one spends a predominance of their day suspended in rockers or wraps, there’s little to no physical stress placed on them. “PHYSICAL STRESS!?!”, you say, “Bu..bu..but this is my wittle pumpkin!”. If you find yourself tempted with those words or thoughts let me remind you of that time when your little ball of joy wiggled him or herself out of the womb. Oh yeah… birth. Babies are used to stress, it beckons growth.
Infants aged 0-6 months are especially in need of this prolonged time in a belly-down position. “Tummy time”, as it’s been coined, teaches them how to hold the weight of their own head, strengthening the musculature of the neck and upper torso. Furthermore, tummy time promotes motor skills and provides a much needed variation from the side-lying, or the supine (face up) position they are typically fed and bed in. Helping hammer this one home, I’ll ask you this: how do YOU feel after prolonged time in one position? Stiff? Groggy? Unhappy? If nothing less, time on the floor provides variety and stimulation (something I’ll mention in the next point).
But first, to help with happier, more frequent belly banquets I’ve listed some tips.
- Tummy time on you counts! He/she will be a lot happier staying in contact with you while logging their abdominal hours. Try laying them down on your legs or placing them chest to chest. This one is a personal favorite of mine and an easier transition to the belly than directly onto your cold, hardwood floors.
- Share the prone position with them. Get on their level, engage with them, and bask in the belly buffet as they do.
- Initiate when they’re happy. Post feeding and post sleeping are great times to schedule a prone party. Try your best to not let your child associate time on the floor with time when mom or dad have met their wits end. Hit ’em with it when they are happiest.
- You can’t do too much of it. Be progressive. Start small and increase as they seem interested or able. Don’t force it, but also don’t shy away from it. Pushing through occasional discomfort is a part of life they ought to become familiar with. That said, encouraging tummy time against their preferences doesn’t make you evil.
2. Provide a Smorgasbord of Sensory Inputs
Going hand-in-hand with time on their belly is the introduction of stimulating sights, sounds, and tactile objects to their environment. Just walk through any Babies”R”Us and you’ll know what I mean. A literal waterfall of widgets awaits cash flush parents looking to satisfy the attention of their offspring. Peeling back a few layers of the booming baby product industry, we can see a root truth in the need for kids to have items which pique their senses.
As a newborn begins to interact with the world around them, experiences ought to vary by sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound. Over the first year of life, the various sensory inputs you introduce will build baby’s coordination, balance, and timing — all showcasing massive developments in the brain and spinal cord.
So, this means you should let your three month old play with your iPad, right? To be frank… no. The American Academy of Pediatrics is pretty firm on this stating:
Children younger than 2 years need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop. … Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their 3-dimensional experience. 
That said, FaceTiming Grandma and Grandpa is a-okay. Research is fairly unanimous in its support of video chatting provided a parent is viewing the chat alongside the child to help with understanding.
So what do you do? Buy all the toys? Well, a quick Amazon search for “sensory toys” yielded me over 15,000 choices. Since you’re probably not going to sell the family farm to buy playthings, here’s a few suggestions from our family’s experience:
- Use things you already have. If you come over to Casa de Gish, the chances of my infant playing with a wooden spoon or an old TV remote are high. Use your noggin here and steer clear of things they could dismantle and swallow, or otherwise injure themselves on.
- Engage with them. You, alongside other caregivers and siblings, are a baby’s greatest source of sensory variation. Make funny faces, gnaw on what they gnaw on, and my personal favorite — carry on conversations with them throughout the day. Any given weekday morning you can find me ranting to my offspring about the many ways to cook an egg while perusing the isles of our grocer.
- Don’t rely on tech. Full disclosure, I’m a luddite. That said, I still catch myself wrapping up emails as a toddler begs for attention at my knee. If you’re using your phone to capture a moment, skype with a relative, or quickly shoot a text to your partner in crime, it’s all gravy baby. Handheld devices are nearly inescapable these days. That said, the moments you have to watch for are when both you and your youngster are mindlessly logging screen time when you otherwise could be engaging with the world around you — or better yet, each other.
3. Give Them a Training Partner.
If bullet points one and two were focused more on infants, then these last two are critical for toddlers and young children. When I mention training partners, I am more accurately implying the necessity of buddies or friends. Social interaction is crucial for children as they age. Through our relationships with others, we learn what people expect of us and gain a larger sense of “self”. The answer to, “Who am I?” comes from knowing first who others are. Interactions with others as children provided you and I with behaviors like sharing, cooperating, and respecting the others. I’ve seen several instances where developmental specialists have taken the stance that through childhood interactions we catch our first glimpses of morality, observing the outcome of our actions affecting others.
Practically, I can vouch for the awkwardness of making this a reality. There’s a fine balance to be had between a 100% parent-controlled playdate and a full on Lord of the Flies situation. While I must disclose that I err more on the side of letting the kids figure it out, you have to set up boundaries and opportunities for each involved caregiver to step in and redirect wrong behavior as they see fit. Regardless, kids need time with others. Ship ’em to your mother-in-law for the weekend, leave them alone in another room with their siblings, let them run around the park with a new friend, and for goodness sake allow them to stare awkwardly at other people as they learn about the world around them.
4. Play Rough.
Full disclosure. If there is one suggestion I’m slightly fearful of putting out there it’s the notion of rough and tumble play. This one rubs people differently, and for many, in the wrong way. If you’re sitting there inquiring, “At what point does roughhousing turn to bullying?” know that I’m equally concerned, but fully supportive of playing rough for the massive benefits.
In their book, The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, authors Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen state this:
Play—especially active physical play, like roughhousing—makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.
Okay. Physically fit? Sure. But smarter though?
Truly, it’s suggested that roughhousing and physical play with others generates neuron growth leading to greater memory, boosted language skills, and improved problem solving abilities. Furthermore, when children play physically, they must learn to read and anticipate the actions of others, as well as the impacts of their own. “Is he going to go for my legs?”, or, “If I instigate, will she chase?”. Instances of horseplay force youngsters to hurdle those questions, and others like them, while preparing those who duke it out for the inevitable adult world. As we grow, a background of rough play provides us with the aptitude to handle future employers, juggle our own emotions, live with a sense of confidence, and navigate both romantic and platonic adult relationships.
So… playing rough has its benefits. How do I start?
- It begins with them. It’s imperative that you allow your child to initiate. When/if your youngster instigates a tackle; an aggressive hug; or as it so often happens at my house, a playful smack to the cheek; then retaliate. Here’s the kicker though, you must reciprocate the action with noticeably weaker force. For example, if I am climbed upon by my toddler son, I might roll him over and pin him… lightly. If he then pushes or pops my face to get me off of him, I might lightly spar him back. This form of physical banter is something we’ve developed since his infancy and is always brought on by his cueing and interest, not mine.
- Start at home. The worse place to trial and error rough housing for the first time is with a bunch of other people’s littles. Use the confines of your home as a learning place for proper rough and tumble play. As of yet, our own family’s horseplay is still based exclusively at home. The two year old (our oldest) still has a lot to learn about his own strength so if inappropriate or unwanted expressions of play are demonstrated at the park or other social gathers, we redirect, correct, and discipline as needed.
- Your comfort above all else. Your flavor, your style, your reservations, all come to play with any parenting decision. Don’t feel compelled to embark down this road if it doesn’t line up with you and your partner’s established family values. I must admit, there can be something perplexing about a father playfully pinching his infant daughter’s cheek after she inquisitively hooks his. In short, find a few principles of rough and tumble play that you agree with and apply as you see fit.
I’m a parent. I get it. Your child is a unique and beautiful snowflake. A remarkable, individual thread woven into this wonderful tapestry we call life. While no two kiddos are the same, I hope my four suggestions provide you with some easy, implementable strategies to enhance your wittle whippersnapper’s development.
At its core, parenting is about preparing children for the world. A world which awaits not just their passion and intellect, but the representation of their physical being as well. And so, as a recap:
1. Put them on their bellies early and often.
2. Provide them a litany of stimulating situations.
3. Make sure they engage with others both their age and not.
4. Let them be wild with each other now and again, and maybe… just maybe, get a little rowdy with them too!
Above all? Love them to pieces.
1: Media and Young Minds
COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA Pediatrics Nov 2016, 138 (5)