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March 29, 2020

Getting a Head Start on Building a Better Athlete: How to Influence Athleticism Through Your Baby's Environment

Having an impact on our child’s athletic abilities not even two months out of the womb?! It sounds absurd, right?

Starting at just six weeks old, caregivers, can influence the motor patterns which ultimately develop into the complex programs that make up running, jumping, catching, swimming, skating, and any other foundational movements of athletics. Each of these activities is derived from the basics of rolling, rocking, crawling, kneeling, squatting, standing, and walking. To be entirely honest, there is not much we have to do make this happen. In fact, the best thing you can do is stay out of your baby’s way and let them figure it out on their own, however long it takes.

As a parent, caregiver or soon to be one, you have probably witnessed the numerous gadgets that come with having a baby. Bouncers, swings, activity walkers, Bumbo seats, and the like are all designed to keep babies safe, entertained, and happy while parents do necessary chores around the house. While the intentions are good, babies can spend too much time in these apparatuses, also known as “containers,” restricting the infant from moving and potentially resulting in a collection of disorders called “Container Baby Syndrome.”

To understand these disorders, we must appreciate the developmental process.  Ever wonder how babies learn to crawl and walk without anyone teaching them how to do so? This process is the result of our nervous system responding to various stimuli within our environment. During the first few weeks of life, a baby’s movements and reflexes are driven by the spinal and brain stem levels. Around 4-6 weeks, vision develops, which allows the baby to focus on an object. Right around this time, pediatricians recommend “tummy time.” As the name suggests, it’s important for infants to spend several minutes each day on their tummy, as being on their stomach signals the nervous system (ie. the brain and corresponding nerves), to begin postural activities. This is subsequently followed by the ability to lift and turn the head.

As a baby progresses into the second trimester of their first year of life, the subcortical region of the brain emerges and motor patterns drive muscles to perform various tasks. At approximately 4-6 months, babies learn to reach for their toes as well as roll, developing the deep core and oblique muscular slings of the torso that provide stabilization for our spine and trunk. The motivation of the baby to move and reach for toys and explore their surroundings leads to a progression of foundational movements including: rocking on all fours, crawling, sitting, half kneeling, squatting, standing, and finally walking. At each stage of the developmental process, the brain is constantly figuring out how to accomplish the task at hand. It’s the trial and error that allows our nervous system to establish the proper neural pathways for successful movement. The baby inherently knows that in order to progress to the next level, he/she must successfully pass the previous one. Much like learning to read we begin with alphabet, then put letters together to form words, and next sentences. Skipping over any one of those steps would only lead to frustration and delayed reading.

Now, let’s circle back to influencing our developing babies.  When parents or caregivers constantly place infants in bouncers, swings, or seats, they are robbed of the exploration time that develops the proper motor patterns for optimal movement. In fact, a collection of disorders labeled, “Container Baby Syndrome,” include torticollis, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, spinal concerns, decreased strength and coordination, facial asymmetry, flat head (plagiocephaly). Additionally increased weight/obesity, and speech, vision, hearing, and slower processing speeds, are a result of babies spending too much time in these containers.

Well intentioned, parents sometimes put babies into positions they have not earned. What do I mean by this? We have all seen the parent who is in a rush to get their child to walk as if there is a prize for walking before 12 months. Or, they place their child in a Bumbo seat or an activity walker to play when they have not even learned to sit up by themselves. I understand the convenience of placing babies in these devices, but if you are not traveling in the car, feeding your baby, or doing a quick errand around the house, let your child roam. Set up a play gate or us a Pack-N-Play instead, which still allows your child to explore movement unrestricted. Again, if babies are forced into advanced activities or positions they have yet to experience on their own, their nervous system is being robbed of the practice needed to form and refine these motor patterns. Each milestone is a fundamental building block for the next, and skipping over steps negates the necessity for the brain to practice motor learning.

So, as you can see we can absolutely influence the foundational movements of our children, which ultimately are the building blocks to athletic activities. Whether your child grows up to play sports or not, allow your little ones to explore as much as possible on their own. Let them stumble and fall; keep them out of the activity walkers, and encourage them to take their time at each stage of the game. There is no medal for your baby walking at 6 months. If you have any concerns or questions regarding the development of your baby, ask your pediatrician if he/she is on the right track. And finally, save your money on the number of “containers” you buy for your baby. You may need it for the number of sports they want to play when they are a teenager.

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