A baby is naturally agile and active
by Janet Doman
Babies spend the first nine months of life free. Well, almost free. They are confined in the warm, safe environment of the womb but they are essentially free to move. As they gain the ability to move, they do move – a lot. This movement is a good thing. Mother certainly thinks so. She is comforted by the baby kicking or turning. She assumes that where there is movement there is life. The baby who is active in utero is assumed to be healthy and vigorous.
We understand intuitively, perhaps even instinctively, that movement is good, it is important.
After nine months of relative freedom the baby makes what is arguably the most difficult and dangerous journey he will ever make and he is born.
What must the baby think, after having had nine months of freedom to move, and having successfully made that dangerous and difficult journey, to find himself placed on his back, and wrapped not once, not twice but often four or five times in blankets that completely immobilize him from the neck down.
This is the ancient practice called “swaddling”, which many may associate with the story of the birth of Christ when the baby was wrapped in “swaddling clothes”.
The modern defense of swaddling is that when the baby is sleeping he may be disturbed by loud sounds. Loud sounds sometimes provoke a startle reflex in the baby (as they should). When this occurs the baby will go into extension and straighten his arms and legs. As a result, sometimes he is awakened by his startle reflex. He cries and this awakens Mother and disturbs her sleep. So, on the chance that this might happen we immobilize the baby from the neck down. Not only at night but often during the day as well.
Swaddling your baby restricts his movements
“Babies are like turtles placed upside-down”
First, it is good, not bad, to have a startle reflex. It is a life-saving reflex which we keep throughout life. The baby has the right to have a startle reflex, just as we do, and further he has the right to extent his body in reaction to that startle. To intentionally inhibit or suppress this reflex is unwise.
Second, the price the baby pays for being immobilized from the neck down is large. When he arrives he has the ability to move because he has been moving for nine months. At birth, he very much needs to develop the ability to move against gravity, which is much harder that moving in the aqueous environment of the womb. This is a challenge he is prepared to meet as long as we immediately give him the opportunity to use the ability he already has developed.
Every day he does not move he is getting heavier. That increase in his weight makes movement more and more difficult. Most babies are placed on their backs in carriers, carriages and cribs for many hours daily. In this position the baby cannot move at all. Babies are like turtles placed upside-down. This teaches the baby that movement is impossible. When he is removed from this helpless and hapless environment he is often placed in a car seat, high chair, or back pack. He is upright but he is still completely immobile.
Babies have a right to move. It is a basic right that we all have. The more we move the healthier we are. The less we move the unhealthier we are. We all know that. It is even more true for the newborn baby.
Movement is critical
Movement is critical for all aspects of the newborn baby’s development. When the baby is on his belly moving forward on the floor he begins to use his vision in a way that he does not need to use it when we move him through space. This stimulation helps that pathway to develop more rapidly at a time when being able to see is very important to him. The better he sees the more he wants to move to get to the things he sees. His desire to explore is born of better vision. Mobility and vision go hand-in-hand. When he can crawl on his belly for transportation in his environment he will begin to develop the ability to use his two eyes together a little bit.
As he pushes himself up on his hands and knees to creep he will need his vision even more. Now he must calculate not only how far his head is from the leg of the chair he is about to run into but how far his head is from the floor. The more he creeps the better his visual convergence gets. When he pulls himself up to walk he will already have some depth perception thanks to the fact that he has paid his dues by doing a lot fop crawling and creeping already. He will be safer on his feet and he will fall and run into things less as result of his better vision. This is one example of the great importance of mobility opportunity in the first six months of life but it is not the only one.
Let’s look at another critical area: respiration. Newborn babies do not breathe very well. All mothers know this. The very best way to promote the maturation of breathing is mobility. The baby who has ample time to be on his belly on the floor crawling and then creeping will develop deeper, more regular, more mature breathing. The result will be a baby who can make a wider range of sounds much sooner. This ability to make a wide range of meaningful sounds helps the baby to communicate with mother and father more effectively. He uses meaningful sounds more often than crying or screaming. Many babies continue to use the “birth cry” to communicate every day needs and wants because their breathing is still too immature to permit the use of more subtle meaningful sounds. Babies who have adequate time on the floor to move and become mobile often use “words” many months before most babies are expected to talk. This improved communication provides a better quality of life for the baby at a critical moment for him when he is establishing his place in the family.
All our babies should be doing great. All our babies could be doing great. All our babies would be doing great if they had the freedom to move.
Our babies need to be free to move. The freedom to move is a birthright of the baby.
We should protect it.
by Janet Doman
The author is a specialist in infant education and is the coauthor, with her father– brain development pioneer Glenn Doman, of How Smart Is Your Baby?: Develop and Nurture Your Newborn’s Full Potential.
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