Your baby’s healthy expressions include spontaneous movements, vocalizations, smiles, and laughter; these are the ways she communicates her vibrant being. Your conscious encouragement of movement, play, and exercise promotes her physical health, as well as her emotional and mental growth and development. At all ages, stretching exercises can increase her circulation, relax tension, and develop her muscle tone. It may be easy to forget that your baby needs exercise when she is an infant, because she cannot crawl or walk on her own. However, she can benefit from a few minutes of daily exercises, such as stretching and tummy time.
As she grows, activities, such as crawling, walking, running, swimming, and dancing, provide cardiovascular and bone strength, in addition to invigorating circulation and developing muscles. Body movements stimulate your baby’s brain development and release endorphins to create a positive emotional outlook. Babies and children naturally move when they are awake because they are full of energy, and they need the opportunity to exercise and discharge excess energy every day.
Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, an occupational and movement therapist, has developed a theory of movement stages in which each step builds on the previous one. In Linda Hartley’s Wisdom of the Body Moving: An Introduction to Body-Mind Centering, a book about Cohen’s theory, Hartley writes, “Development occurs in overlapping waves, with each stage containing elements of all others. Because each previous stage underlies and supports each successive stage, any skipping, interrupting, or failing to complete a stage of development can lead to alignment and movement problems, imbalances within body systems, and problems in perception, sequencing, organization, memory, and creativity.” Therefore, if a movement pattern is not expressed, the child’s development process may be incomplete and unstable.
People often view the body and the brain as separate and disconnected. According to Cohen, however, the body and the brain communicate when the brain sends messages to muscles to make a movement or when muscles stimulate the brain through movement. In this way, physical movement connects to and supports your baby’s brain development. Different areas of the brain correlate to physical, visual, auditory, tactile, manual, and linguistic competencies. As your baby goes through the sequence of movements below, her brain establishes a foundation that builds layer upon layer. As with a building, each block is essential to establish a solid base for the blocks above it.
Your baby naturally develops in the following order:
- She learns to lift her head
- She learns to sit up
- She learns to roll over
- She learns to creep
- She learns to crawl
- She learns to stand and then walk
If you help your baby stand or walk before she is ready, even though she may be able to do it, you are teaching her that she cannot do it by herself, and that she needs your help to achieve it. is deprives her of the satisfaction of pulling herself up onto her own two feet.
As a parent, in your enthusiasm about your child’s growth and development, you may encourage her to skip movement stages—to walk before crawling, for example. It may be challenging to step back, put yourself in your child’s position, and observe her energy as she moves on her own. Imagine that you are watching a plant grow at fast-forward speed. Like the plant, your baby moves on her own, through internal energy that expresses nature’s intelligence. This intelligence is integrated throughout her physical body, her emotions, and her neurological makeup. She intuitively knows how to move and develop. If she has a safe, supportive, encouraging environment in which to move freely, then she can discover the satisfaction of her own initiative, grow naturally, and experience the gratification of her accomplishments.
Your child’s body is designed to move. Movement—of body systems, organs, and cells—is a sign of life. Her body’s movement transforms and rejuvenates her in cycles of sleep and rest. Physical movement promotes the production of new brain cells. Activities, such as watching television and playing computer games, are the beginnings of a sedentary lifestyle, and they undermine your child’s opportunity to participate in the world and to learn with her whole being.
At Muso Yochien (Dream Window Kindergarten) in Japan, I worked with Hideko Yoshida to incorporate movement activities with music and songs in order to help students learn English words. Hideko believed that singing and movement help integrate learning. You can help your baby get in touch with her body through massage, through different kinds of movement and exercise, and through pointing out different parts of her body. To bring awareness to different areas of your baby’s body, act out this song by touching the parts of your baby’s body:
Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
♪ Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
Eyes and ears, and mouth and nose. ♬
Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
Take some time every day to provide the opportunity for your child to move, both indoors and outdoors. She especially needs a safe space to move on her own accord—to roll over, to crawl, and to walk. In your home, you can make a small, safe space by installing safety gates and removing breakable and dangerous objects. An outdoor park or nature reserve can offer a safe environment for her to roam freely.
When your child moves actively from her own initiative, she develops confidence, will, and judgment. Passive movement happens when an outside force initiates the movement for your child, without voluntary action on her part. For example, if you pick her up quickly or unexpectedly, this action can surprise her and diminish her sense of power.
As a parent, you often need to set limits and parameters to ensure the safety of your baby. However, when you encourage your child to move, to play games, or to dance, try to follow her lead, and support her to move actively rather than passively. When you inspire and guide, instead of managing or forcing, she can discover her own life force and learn to follow it. You can incorporate movement into daily activities while you cook and clean by turning on some fun music and getting your child involved in helping. You may want to dance freely together with or without music.
Swimming is an aerobic exercise, as well as a stretching and muscle-building one. When your baby is born, she has a natural memory of how to swim, and if she does not use that ability, she will forget it over time and need to relearn it. It is easier to teach a one-year-old to swim than it is to teach a four-year-old. An early introduction to swimming provides a positive movement experience before your baby is old enough to crawl or to walk. When you swim with your child, you have the opportunity to interact with her in a playful and active way that bonds you and gives a new dimension to your relationship.
You can start your newborn with swimming lessons in your own bathtub by holding her and bobbing her up and down, floating her on her back, and cuddling in the water. Later, you can swim together in a pool, lake, or ocean. If she swims when she is young, she will feel comfortable in the water later on.
Usually, doctors recommend waiting until your baby is six weeks old before swimming with her in a public pool, and most organizations start offering lessons at four to six months. If your child is sick or has an infectious disease, do not take her swimming in a public pool. This will help keep everyone healthy.