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Facilitating Growth and Movement

Angela Oswalt, MSW

As mentioned before, the first year of life is a time when babies strengthen their muscles and bones and learn how to use their bodies to move around and to manipulate their environment. If babies are constantly held and carried during the first year, they will lose valuable opportunities to gain fine-tune skills. Parents and caregivers should facilitate movement and growth by giving babies safe environments to play and to explore on their own.

baby on floor playingCaregivers can lay young infants on a clean blanket on the floor, surround them with clean, safe toys, and allow them to reach, wiggle, kick, and roll on their own or in play with others. Infants should also be laid on their bellies often, in order to help them build arm, back, and neck muscles. As babies mature and their mobility improves, caregivers will have to do more to ensure a safe environment for exploration.

Caregivers can also facilitate growth by engaging in developmentally-appropriate activities, such as "peek-a-boo," assisted walking, reaching activities, and other healthy activities that encourage movement. During playtime in the early months, caregivers can hold toys such as stuffed animals or rattles at different locations in the baby's lines of sight and encourage them to reach toward the object. Caregivers can also "dance" with infants as they start to stand. While playing some fun music or singing a song, lightly assist them in a standing position and guide them to move their body with the music. Babies will also start combining gross and fine motor skills by practicing play such as manipulating, and later stacking, blocks while sitting up.

In the first six months of the baby's life, caregivers find there are times they want to ensure a safe play area for the baby while they complete other tasks around the house or step out of the room for a few moments. Caregivers can purchase and utilize play yards (the new term for playpens) that meet general safety standards (see childproofing article). As long as the play yard is assembled according to manufacturer's instructions and caregivers follow safety instructions, infants can safely and happily play for short durations. However, as infants begin crawling and especially when they begin attempting to cruise and to walk, play yards will rob babies from opportunities to try out their muscles and abilities, as they won't have space to roam and to move.

At this point, caregivers may be tempted to use walkers, believing that they will keep babies safe while allowing them to roam and practice their walking skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents not to use them for several reasons. Because of their increased mobility, these walkers can put babies at risk for nasty falls down stairs and other hazards. Furthermore, they actually discourage the development they were designed to encourage. Babies that spend substantial time in walkers will actually develop their leg muscles before their trunk muscles (opposite their natural development), which will impede normal development and growth.

In recent years, manufacturers have also introduced stationary walkers that don't allow babies to move from one location while still practicing walking motions. However, these also can be detrimental because they also cause the same backward muscle development and may frustrate babies as they try to use their new walking skills to move around their space.

The best option is to allow babies to safely explore and practice their cruising and walking skills while allowing parents and caregivers to supervise while doing other tasks is creating a larger-scale play yard. Caregivers can pick a space in their home or office that is convenient to other locations in the house, for example, a downstairs den that's near the kitchen and laundry room. Multiple such spaces, for example one on each level, allow easier supervision. To partition this space from other living spaces, use baby gates or other baby-safe enclosure devices to block access to dangerous places such as kitchens, stairs, fireplaces, expensive collectibles, etc.

Remove any dangerous objects from that area, such as window blind cords; sharp-edged glass coffee tables, and small objects that can cause choking. Leave things like couches, soft chairs, and coffee tables with surfaces that allow baby to hold on and use to cruise. Caregivers can purchase or create their own corner pads and other child safety tools (see childproofing article). Once again, with a little time, effort, and common sense, parents can create a safe and fun place where infants can learn and practice their motor skills.