Whilst it’s no surprise we need to be attentive and responsive to facilitate a baby’s general development, it is perhaps less well known that children who miss out on lots of early movement experiences and 'tummy time' find more complex skills – like understanding how they are feeling – more difficult to interpret as they get older.
Essentially, movement helps us recognise and regulate our feelings. It might not be a pairing you would immediately link but there is tons of literature to support this idea and is known as sensory integration. Movement develops our social and emotional development, in the same way you require a good foundation layer before adding the bricks when building a house.
Good social and emotional development also enables us to make more complex decisions, problem solve and develop ‘impulse control’. For instance, if we throw/kick a ball and it goes onto the road, are we able to think about whether there is a passing car before rushing out to get it? Movement-rich experiences help us achieve these essential skills. Who’d have thought it?!
Even before babies can roll, sit or crawl they are instinctively using their bodies to communicate with us. Next time you chat with a baby, take a moment to notice how their body is responding in your ‘chat’ with them. Their faces light up but so do their bodies, wriggling and jiggling around. This all contributes to the development of important pathways in the brain.
Recently, I was chatting about the importance of ‘tummy time’ with a group of new parents. Babies who spend lots of their time on their tummies when they’re awake generally develop better head, shoulder and neck control sooner than those who don’t. In turn, this helps baby to move to the next stage of development, like rolling over. Body control is a ‘top down’ process. It starts with the head.
Another benefit of ‘tummy time’ (also known as being prone) is that it is position that fosters a feeling of calm and general regulation (no matter what our age!). Coupled with breathing exercises, or an activity like blowing bubbles, humming or singing, we are activating our parasympathetic nervous system and soothing ourselves so the more we can incorporate this position into normal daily life, the better it is for us all.
It’s also worth considering the principles of gross and fine motor control skills when discussing movement. A child who has not developed good control around their shoulder will find it more difficult to do things like hold a fork, spoon or pen. So, when a baby learns to push up on its arms and to crawl, important control around the shoulder girdle is developing which in turn will facilitate success in other more complex physical tasks.
Movement in general also helps nurture our vestibular and proprioceptive systems. These systems play an important role in being able to balance and orientate ourselves to the environment. Proprioception is essentially like a human version of sat nav! Encouraging lots of movement of the head in particular (because the vestibular system is located in our ears), helps us to develop these systems and in turn, we develop good postural control too.
Gently rocking your baby to soothe them, dancing with them, spinning around, moving them high and low, side to side etc are all helping to develop these important systems, which is one of the reasons we believe our parent and baby plus pilates classes are so important.
Classes such as pilates encourage gentle movement which helps to develop your and your babies motor skills and also helps with their social and interaction skills as they meet other babies. Classes can also end up being a nice routine that gives you access to some social time too and the opportunity to make new friends in the same position as you, all while getting fit after giving birth.
Ultimately, moving in a variety of ways with your baby (and often) and using 'tummy time' is key to successful all-round development, so next time you think it’s easier to keep them in their car seat or buggy, think again …unless they’re sleeping of course!