Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Hurrieder We Go, the Behinder They Get

The habitual use of strollers, car seats, carriages, playpens, and strap on baby carriers forces a child into the role of  passive observer instead of allowing him to be an active participant in his surroundings.  This interferes with learning, delays his neurological development, and negatively impacts language, balance, motor control, socialization skills, vision, and academic performance.

I truly believe I would have many less clients if people got rid of their strollers, carriages, playpens, and car seats, encouraged their children to walk, carried their babies and toddlers on their hips, and put away their electronic devices while with their children.

I have a friend who lived in Europe for many years. He married a woman who grew up on a farm in rural Bavaria and they settled in Munich.  I visited when their first daughter was five months old, and was fascinated to see my friend's wife getting ready to take her baby out for a walk one afternoon.  Instead of opening the front closet and hauling out one of the elaborate carrier devices I was used to seeing in the States, she went to her bedroom, opened her dresser drawer and fetched a long, wide cotton scarf.  She sat the baby with its legs around her hip, wrapped the scarf around the child's bottom, tied a knot, brought it over her opposite shoulder, and slipped the knot around to her back.

She did use a stroller, but only if she had a lot of shopping to do or had to go a long distance.  Otherwise she carried her babies tied on her hip in her home made sling, or allowed them to walk.  I remember many mornings walking in the park that surrounded Schloss Nymphenburg, waiting for the little girl, who was about a year and a half old on my next visit, to look up from her explorations of pebbles and dirt and join us, but since we were not in a hurry, we were able to let her satisfy her curiosity.  We remarked one morning at how toddlers are like little artists or scientists, they are so absorbed and fascinated by the minutiae of their world.

This child's mother, like her own mother, who had raised five children with no outside help, was an expert at one handed cooking and housework.  She habitually carried her babies on her hip as she cooked, cleaned, and tidied her apartment.  One morning, as I sat down at the kitchen table, she carefully leaned over sideways and served me a cappuccino that she had  brewed with one hand literally tied behind her back.

Both babies are young adults now.  They are excellent students, charming, accomplished, and intelligent, and despite having spent so much time in a small apartment in a big city, they are effortlessly athletic and graceful.

I was a fairly new OT back then and wasn't working with children, so I did not understand what a difference it makes in a baby's development to actively cling to its mother as it is carried versus being passively strolled.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating:  for a child to be able to "hang in there" in daily life, the child must literally be able to hang on.  By riding on her mother's hip, gripping her mother's body between her legs, my friend's daughter was being conditioned to do just that.

In direct contrast, a stroller does not condition a child to do anything but slump passively.

Think about all of the modern equipment available these days for carrying babies, toddlers, and small children.  Almost all of it is designed for the grown ups to be able to ferry the child quickly and conveniently from place to place, exactly as if the child were a cat in a carrier.  The child is placed inside, strapped in tightly to prevent it from moving, and is passively conveyed from one location to the other.  Thus we can quickly get wherever it is we need to go, and if the child is tired of trying to escape, it will simply give up and stay put, and not bother us when we get there.  We can also avoid almost all interaction with the child since he is facing away.  This allows us to text, talk, surf, IM, and do our errands in peace.

I see this all the time in Manhattan:  nannies with children fastened into carriages and strollers, browsing in Filene's Basement and chatting on their cell phones while the developing youngsters in their care passively stare out at the rows of clothing on the racks.  Or I see working mothers in suits and heels, absentmindedly pushing a child in a stroller while absorbed in their Blackberries.

In contrast, being carried is such a multi sensory, multi directional, active experience. When a human walks, the body rotates in many directions all at once.  The baby, holding on, bobs up and down, back and forth, side to side, with each step.    All the while it is being carried, since it is wrapping its legs around and holding on tight, it is also stretching, strengthening and developing endurance in the deep muscles of the legs responsible for posture and balance, and readying the outer layers of muscles for walking.

 When the baby rides on a hip, it has to hold its head, neck, and trunk up against gravity in all different positions, righting itself continually as the person carrying it turns, twists, and bends.  The spine and trunk are continually challenged and strengthened. The child learns how to maintain its stability and balance in all planes, and develops the trunk strength necessary to support sitting, breathing, fine motor control, and eye hand coordination.

The child's neck muscles develop the strength necessary to support the close work of the eyes, and visual skills, like depth perception and binocular vision, are developed and practiced as the child learns to see things from all different perspectives.  The muscles in the child's eyes become strong and stable as he bobs up and down and watches the world go by while fixing things in his gaze.

And, most important, a child who is carried on a hip is eye to eye with the grownup, the exact right level to look at each other and carry on a conversation.  The baby practices making eye contact, reading expressions for emotional cues, and developing his receptive and expressive language.   He learns to attend to what is being said to him, and to develop and internalize the social skills required for conversation.  He becomes accustomed to, and comfortable with, intimate contact and intimate conversation.

Strap a child down, prevent him from moving, force him to be passive, and you condition him to be passive.

Keep a child moving, don't strap him down or impede his movement, carry him on your hip and talk to him, and you give him the tools he needs to be strong, resilient, active, curious, and healthy.


Regula said...

As always, you are so right. I wish you many followers (on the blog and people who are open to your advice).

Unfortunatelly I don't have babies anymore. Maybe some day I will be a grand-mother. :-)

Your Therapy Source Inc said...

You are 100% correct. I have raised my five children in baby carriers or on my hip. I do have to admit I sometimes complain that they were never "stroller babies" - babies who will sit passively. But I have always strongly practiced that little ones are meant to move - this is how they learn and interact with their environment. It does help that I am a pediatric PT but it is not rocket science. I am not saying a never use a stroller but I do use it in moderation.

Since we have 5 children over a span of 10 years I have seen changes towards even more passive babies. Now we have the bumbo chair to strap them into at even a younger age. The rolling walkers have now changed into more passive standing frames with lots of toys to keep their trunk and lower bodies passive while the arms attempt to play with toys. Car seats strap right onto strollers so they are not even out for the transition to the stroller. And, now they recommend that babies stay in reverse car seats until two years old. So now they can stay strapped in their car seats and get moved anywhere until 2 years old. Get ready for our caseloads to increase even more (not to mention curious what will happen to hip joints when positioned frog legged for so long since legs can not stretch out in reverse car seat). The real shame is by the time the babies get referred for OT or PT it may be too late to educate the parent or care giver on allowing babies and toddlers the freedom to move, explore and learn.

School System Occupational Therapist in Virginia said...

I was one of those wacko moms in the early 80's who had a thin waterbed mattress in my kids' crib--yes, and they slept on their stomachs!

Movement, movement, movement!

I'm the old lady in my church now and see babies wheeled into the sanctuary in fancy strollers; I want to rescue them from confinement and settle them in their parents' arms.

Parents--put down the phone and pick up your kid!