Baby and Child Movement: Exercise for EveryoneNatasha Polak
60 Minutes a Day
You know that exercise and eating right are important for a healthy body, but did you know that exercise isn’t just for older kids and adults? Even infants benefit from daily activity. According to the National Association of Sports and Physical Education, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers all need to spend 60 minutes in physical activity daily, without being sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time during waking hours.
That’s something to think about, considering the average young child spends an increased amount of time watching television each year. Yet studies show that if children grow up having exercise as part of their daily regimen, they are less likely to become obese or suffer from obese-related problems as older children or adults.
“Exercise for babies, especially in the newborn period, consists solely of feeding. A baby with heart or lung problems will have more difficulty feeding because of the extra ‘work’ required of his/her heart and lungs,” says Dr. Kimberly G. Lee, Associate Director of the Infant Follow-up Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Breathing, sucking, and swallowing all at once is exercise,” she adds.
During those first few weeks when your baby is too young for rigorous exercise, you can still begin demonstrating healthy habits by participating in the following activities together:
- Take your baby for a walk in the stroller.
- Put your baby on the floor beside you and practice stretching.
- Play, talk, and cuddle with your baby regularly.
- Carry baby in a sling or carrier while exercising.
Exercises for Your Growing Baby
As your baby continues to grow during those early months, he will develop an exercise regime ranging from lifting his head while in a prone position, to reaching for and grabbing objects while in the supine position.
“[Babies] advance to sitting on their own, trying to roll over, creeping, crawling… all around the middle of the first year,” reminds Dr. Lee. For that reason, all attempts at keeping baby active from the very beginning are important so that developmental skills are learned and practiced. Be sure to avoid leaving baby in an infant seat, swing, or bouncer for extended periods.
“It’s especially important for premature or other special-needs babies to be helped to work on these developmental tasks at the proper times,” says Dr. Lee. “For example, these babies should not be encouraged to stand up before they are ready. Preemies may have higher tone in their extensor muscles and look as though they want to stand up but in fact need to be encouraged to spend time on their tummies and sides first, to develop their muscle groups appropriately,” Lee says. Walkers and jumping seats among others are best avoided. Instead, allow your baby time for rolling and kicking on a flat surface, such as on a blanket on the floor, on a play gym, or in his crib.
Simple exercises you can do with your exploring baby include:
- Dancing to music while holding baby in your arms or in a sling/carrier.
- Assisting your baby in pulling to a sitting position by grasping his hands with your fingers around them, making sure to position your thumbs in the baby’s palms for leverage.
- Helping your baby to a standing position by holding his waist or grasping his hands before allowing his feet to touch the ground.
- Assisting your baby in rolling front-to-back and back-to-front while he is supine or on his tummy by rolling him gently back-and-forth.
- Moving your baby’s legs in a bicycle movement while she is in supine position at diaper changes or bedtime; this also soothes some colicky babies.
- Waving your baby’s arms from side-to-side and up and down.
- Raising your baby in the air to “fly” while supporting her abdomen.
- Allowing baby to grasp or kick at a beach ball or other type of ball of similar size.
Exercise for Toddlers and Preschoolers
Once your baby is able to walk, he has reached a crucial point in his development. As a toddler, and even as an older preschooler, it is important for you to help your child build and develop coordination through a wide selection of toys, sports, and regular outings to avoid his favoring sedentary habits.
The toddler’s basics of movement involve learning how his toys work. Make sure to have plenty of pull/push toys, balls in various sizes, musical instruments, ride-on toys, child-size brooms/mops or gardening and lawn equipment, sports equipment, and at least a couple tumbling mats and butterfly nets. From learning how to move the wheels on a walker, to squealing with delight when his toy dog barks with each tug on the string, or even helping you sweep the kitchen floor—your child will begin to see that interacting with and enjoying the world around him is hands-on. The more he moves, the more energy he burns, keeping him fit.
Physical activity is also a mood-booster, so your child will tend to have a more positive self-image. Plus, you have the added benefit of having more restful nights for the whole family after your youngster is tuckered out from “playing hard” during the day.
Once your child has mastered walking, running, climbing, and even jumping, you can start to include some of these activities:
- Hopscotch or jump rope
- Kite flying
- Sledding with an adult
- Ball games
- Chasing games
- Leap frog
Encourage your child to walk as often as possible by:
- Visiting museums, zoos, and aquariums.
- Visiting community or amusement parks, playgrounds, or campgrounds, and fitness facilities.
- Walking instead of driving to closer destinations.
- Refraining from parking closer to your destinations.
Classes for Little Kids
During the first five or six years of life, children do well alone or in groups for physical activities, but cannot grasp the concept of competition until they are closer to school age. You can choose from various dance classes, pee-wee sports teams, and gymnastics classes, some of which might allow you to join in on the fun!
Aside from the independent activities you can teach your child at home, enrolling him in formalized classes can also be of benefit if you keep in mind a few simple rules:
- Look for classes where competition is avoided. Classes should focus solely on your child’s individual progress and exploration, and not force her to do certain activities for which she may not be strong or coordinated enough.
- Look for age-appropriate activities and toys. Simple concepts are the key to keeping your child’s interest and avoiding the frustration that comes from struggling to use a toy with which she does not identify.
- If you must choose a class to attend, keep it to a minimum. For children having too much or too little to do can work adversely. To avoid burnout or boredom, do smaller activities from home, and only once or twice a week attend a formalized class.
While there are many types of classes that offer physical activity, some of the most popular choices for movement classes include dance, yoga, and gymnastics/tumbling. Most classes do accept infants through youth, but the focus with the pre-crawling infant would be the same as what you would be doing with him from home, only with the addition of other parents and babies with whom you would both interact.
Dance classes explore movement in a natural way, using props such as ribbons, banners, and costumes. Movement styles include:
Yoga incorporates the idea of balancing the body through targeted stretching and deep breathing exercises. Some of the movements are similar to gymnastics and dance, appealing to children and adults alike. Others, like the child’s pose and the butterfly pose, are stretches that seem to come naturally to many youngsters.
Gymnastics and tumbling classes range in difficulty, and are aimed at keeping exercise fun and creative. Examples of toddler movement include:
- Jumping on balance beams
- Donkey kicking
As those skills are mastered, more challenging activities are offered. Props such as balance beams, uneven bars, tunnels, mini-tramps, trampolines, and various mats are just some of the many used. Your child will learn:
- Rolls on balance beams
As with anything, never force your child to do one activity over another, and take the time to observe his interests and strengths. Encourage him to explore self-expression through exercise from home first, and don’t be afraid to join him—remember, you are the active role model!