Infant Exercise

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I’m Susan Turben and this is a program about what mothers, fathers, and all adults who care for children may want to know about infant exercise, infant stimulation, and infant games and activities that will help infants and young children stay healthy and fit. While mothers and fathers are benefitting from health and fitness centers and preventative health care is commonly accepted among adults, there are very few health and fitness facilities oriented toward infants and young children 0 to 5 years old. A health club for infants seems a bit unnecessary, but healthy homes and child-care centers that stress self-confidence and well-being “are” a necessity in order to keep the next generation fit and healthy!

Children today are considerably fatter than youngsters were in the mid-60’s. The heart-lung fitness of an average 10-year-old lags way behind a middle-age jogger, according to a national survey of 8,000 children. In a Michigan study, 98% of elementary school children had at least one major risk factor for developing coronary heart disease as young as 8-or-9-years of age. Eight-and nine-year-olds spend only 1% of their day at an activity that significantly raises their heart rate. This means only 1% of their normal day was spent in activities considered to be “rigorous” or “vigorous”.

New studies show that fat cells can develop in infancy and can remain large, contributing to physical awkwardness and an overweight condition as early as the preschool years. This means that a fat baby can, in fact, become a fat preschooler who in turn can become a heavy or overweight adult.

Yet infants are always moving! They’re even in motion in-utero. Babies blink, nod, wink, stand on their heads, all before they are born! As newborns, they use their reflexes to develop self-control and patterns of exercise and voluntary motion. In 12-to-15 weeks, babies are grasping and reaching and rolling – showing everyone that activity is just as vital as eating, swallowing, sucking, crying, smiling and making sounds.

Today, mothers and fathers want suggestions about how to provide lots of action and essential nutrition for their children from the day they are born! An infant fitness program might include: (1) exercise; (2) sights and sounds to see and hear; (3) change of position, air, light, and temperature of surroundings; (4) tactile stimulation games. Aerobic conditioning, flexibility and strength training and coordination exercises may be appropriate for toddlers as young as 14-or 15-months of age.

The positive lasting effect of good fitness and health in the early years is seen in the lives of those persons who are lucky enough to start very early in a sport that’s rigorous and continuous, such as soccer, baseball, skating, or dancing. Children who get an early dose of these kinds of activities find that the rest of their lives that have quick reactions and measure of self-discipline and self-confidence that many of their age-mates do not have. These “little jocks” seem to have eye-hand and eye-foot coordination that gives them a healthy posture and sense of well-being. It’s easy to see that they have a lifelong interest in fitness and health because they get lots of pleasure, as well as mental and physical muscles from doing their sport.

Yes, studies show exercise encourages physiological state changes that allow human beings to develop the ability to relax and to solve problems with greater efficiency and speed. Children who are active may think faster, or at least think more on their feet.

Our society of of today is a society “at risk”. Teratogens, such as things as alcohol and drugs, smoke, pollution, and the dumping of wastes cause real problems for every community, creating universal environmental risks that make all infants vulnerable. Children born today are exposed to some factors that are beyond their control or that of their families. Other factors are within the families power to change – the health and stamina of the very young.

Parents and adults who care about their children ask how do we start health and wellness habits? How do we put fitness, exercise, and activity into routine schedules everyday? Remember, exercising in infancy is just second nature to babies. Babies are born ready to absorb sights and sounds and touches. They tell us they are by repeating pleasurable acts like these. Their movements and expressiveness reward parents and let them feel a great bond and strong sense of involvement with their young children. Infants initially show or tell what they like to do, and parents respond by doing what they like more often. This pattern establishes healthy habits.

One pleasurable activity is massage. Moms and dads may enjoy massaging their babies beginning right after birth to provide a sort of an “act” of love. These messages are tactile – answering skin-hunger – allowing infants to feel good. Food, warmth, and sleep also feel good… Changes in light and in air and in temperature all of these things, including changes of position, feel good, and help a newborn to have a variety of good experiences.

Give infants plenty of good, positive, loving activities and experiences to file away in their rapidly growing brains. Did you know that during the first 6 months of life, the brain of a human baby doubles in size? Studies of infant states like attention and memory show that infants do, in fact, think. We think infant thought is concrete and consists of impressions and images of what they touch, see, hear, feel, and smell. The innate need to move is so natural for them. That correlations have been made between intellectual development and mobility has always been assumed. It is, in fact, an important part of infant development.

Move the baby’s legs a few times and let him kick and then repeat it. He’ll laugh and that’s enough to start a back-and-forth play exercise that both people enjoy. Your baby will love being put over your knees and exercised in a kind of alternating swimming kick. Watch the infant smile when you’re doing this, as the infant stretches his neck and lifts up his chest. Smiles, coos, vigorous movements all tell you that the infant may want to do it over and over again. These types of baby games are so easy because they’re part of the “routine” of daily activities – they’re free of cost and the aggravation of travel.

We hear today a lot about early programs, such as swimming programs for infants. Many of these may be beneficial to parents who have need to structure their child’s experiences, but are not generally so healthy for infants. The number of ear, nose, throat, and upper respiratory ailments that occur as a result of putting children as young as 3 months in the water regularly is very high compared to those who do not do it. The American Academy of pediatrics says that the practice may be actually dangerous if parents get a false sense of security and even grow lax about safety because they place their infants in these kinds of programs. Cases have been reported in which water intoxication has occurred when an infant swallows so much water convulsions occur. Other exercise and play programs seem positive if parents do these things based on the child’s cues and signals, rather than their own.

During the first 6 months of life “good play” may be nothing more than lots of imitating of mother’s and dad’s facial expressions, smiling, and “talking” (making babbling sounds) with adults. Mothers and fathers can “talk back” to their babies’ by imitating the patterns of sounds that they make. Infants this age look intently at mirrors and enjoy examining shiny and colorful toys, black and white patterns, and parents’ faces. They love rolling over and kicking, putting safe objects in their mouths, cooing and gurgling. These things may seem very obvious, but do we realize that they are helping the child to become fit and healthy?

Exercising is a part of normal motor development. They hunger for movement. Babies also have a hunger for touching and holding on. To touch and be touched is a basic survival need. Tactile activities may include stroking, fingering, poking, tapping, patting objects and people.

Older babies and toddlers get great satisfaction from hugging, roughhousing, and tickling play. Moms and dads enjoy running and crawling after babies which is much more interesting to the baby than just leaving an infant of this age alone or letting an infant stay in a playpen for extended periods of time. Crawling and creeping activities are so directed at discovery and searching the environment that they are actually intellectual. It’s funny to think that motor activities can make a baby smarter, but it turns out by playing peek-a-boo while creeping after an infant of 7 or 8-months or playing hide-and-seek games (trying to cover and uncover objects) make the child aware that objects do not really disappear once they have been covered up, but are actually still there. So when you play search and discovery games with your older baby you’re also helping her to think.

Infants repeat pleasurable acts more often than unpleasant or noxious ones. Do games with infants because your baby likes it, not because it’s good for him. “Good play” should be self-pleasing and self-regulated. No pressure and no teaching. Parents are not super-parents and they never will be. So relax and get older babies and toddlers together with other children at home or just play with your child at home. Be flexible and go with your common sense about your child’s temperament, his disposition, his likes and dislikes. The reason is we know that during the second year of life, toddlers like to roam and climb and explore. Mothers and daddies can arrange to turn toddlers “loose” in a special area (removing all the untouchable or potentially hazardous objects) give permission to the toddler to explore happily within a safe and restricted area, and give confidence to the child as well.

A household environment, though, is never enough for a toddler. It’s important to get toddlers outside to play with messy materials like mud, sand, or water. Car rides, short trips to stores, excursions to malls all enlarge the scope of a toddler’s life. Sociable and interactive activities that occur outside the home help toddlers gain valuable experiences to help them cope. That’s what really learning to be independent is all about in the first few years of life. It’s being able to learn self-control and self-awareness and prepare for early schooling, nursery, or special education schools. By age 3, children should be independent of their parents for short periods of time. These early activities and games help them to achieve that.

At Michigan State University and other places where motor development is analyzed, such games and activities as running, and throwing, and catching, and jumping are felt to be safe if introduced around the 2-1/2 year mark. That’s pretty young to be teaching a child to jump and throw and catch and pitch and toss. But actually this kind of motor movement practice in a relaxed non-competitive way teaches children a lot about social behavior, discipline, patience, sharing, and other concepts that are helpful to know by the time children start in a group school situation.

Parents can be excellent physical educators if they will just let a child perform movements such as these in their own way rather than insisting on only one correct approach or one right way to do it. If you haven’t already noticed, toddlers and preschoolers are very assertive. They will stop, refuse, and change their own activities if you force them. There is no one right way to run. There is no one right way to throw, or catch, or jump, or toss.  So the variety in their behavior is part of the fun of being with very young children, each of who is unique in ability.

If, as parents, you want to do these motor activities, keep the sessions short, but frequent. Toddlers need to stretch their mental muscles, as well as their physical selves, so play pretend and “act-out” games that give older babies good feelings about themselves. It’s amazing how most children will simply work in their pay to the point of exhaustion. They also want attention and please you. Give them a lot of praise when they do please you and avoid criticism about unimportant things. Practicing skills is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of motivation and the need for positive attention from you.

Children will eat, and sleep, and perform better if they have variety in their lives. Variety of diet, variety of exercise and activity. Older babies and toddlers thrive on alternating physical play with quiet thoughtful play. With a “balanced” active, varied routine, toddlers tend to be more cooperative and they seem more positive and less negative. Today, given the divorce rate and the number of places to which children go during the course of one day, they are getting used to variety! But variety also means a change of space, as well as place! Balance energetic activities with calmer, quieter times.

As important as playing games with babies and exercise, so is eating and feeding. Nutrition is of the greatest importance because the nutritional needs of young children are now known to be greater than previously thought. Infants need intake of food that maintains a high caloric count. While we don’t want to develop an abnormal number of fat cells infants must have enough calories to sustain high energy for 10 hours a day. We see many, too many children today, between the ages of 1 and 6 that are malnutritioned. Why? Because they drink from a bottle and are “over-milked” and under fed.

A daily routine in which toddlers and preschoolers actually help to prepare food is probably the simplest and best way to get children to be: a) good eaters and b) to enjoy the process and the activities associated with food.

Even 2-year-olds that we work with who have vision loss and multiple handicaps can safely cut, and chop, and mix, and pour, and create, actually cook good food all in the name of playing.

Toddlers are so smart they will eat when they are hungry and not until.  They’ll go to the bathroom when their bladders full and not until. They’ll close their ears or their eyes when they’ve seen or heard enough. They’ll think, differently than adults, but they will think about those kinds of activities. The trick is to tune in to how they think, not the way we think. Children are not miniature adults. They are not little versions of their parents although in many cases children turn out to be a lot like their parents.

But in essence, it’s not the world of Dr. Spock anymore. It’s not children as little dependent creatures that adults can manipulate and organize and schedule and ritualize themselves. Instead we know now that infants are self-regulated. That they organize their own behavior in many ways. For example children think differently from adults about objects and people and places. Infants absolutely believe what they see and touch. They don’t make judgments or over-react the way adults do to a situation. What they see is what they see, and what they hear and what they touch are what they do. They’re very concrete. When objects disappear and reappear infants think about two different objects: the one that disappeared and the one the reappears. Toddlers do not judge or over-react to what they see or hear they absorb it, they accept it, and they work on it. They try to get information about the size or the color or shape of the objects that are involved in their activity. A good example they see a moon on a street and then on another street they see the moon. Adults say, “Oh, isn’t that a nice moon.” Children say, “No, that’s two moons.”

When children roughhouse with their parents you may want to realize that that kind of hunger for rough, consistent, high energy play actually helps them to absorb and remember what it is they’re doing. Activity is far more preferable than passivity. For when they’re simply absorbing by watching or by looking at television or being passive in some other way they have to kind of imagine what it would be like to really do it instead they ought to be really doing it. When infants and toddlers play with blocks, for example, or a mirror, or a set of stacking rings, they’re fixing certain images about those objects in their memory. They’re working with the information and they’re duplicating it. If they see two sets of materials those materials are separate and distinct to them and they work on each set separately. A good example of this work is a bottle with clothespins in it. This play activity may look very different every time it’s used by an infant or a toddler. It may look different in the perspective that the child is taking to look at the object. It may be that the child is in front of the object, or to the side of it, or in back of it. In each case the bottle appears differently to a very young child. They don’t reverse their perspective they simply take the perspective in. And what this means is that each time a child engages in a physical or mental exercise he is in fact having a new experience. These experiences are internalized, brought inside of the child’s own mind and body and they are stored there. Ready to add details and ready to be expanded upon. And ready to cause and create new concepts and ideas to be understood.

So, infants and toddlers can’t really be viewed as children who can share or who lie or who have the ability to reverse mentally what they hear and what they see and they can’t wait. What this means is that infants and toddlers and very young children have a special kind of reality. A special kind of reality that is not confused with fantasy, but is very specific and concrete.

There are many kinds of activities that infants and toddlers should do that are considered to be adult kinds of activities, that is, parents seem to want to drag children around and have them do what they’re doing. This is an adult-centered society we live in with so much emphasis being put on careers and how adults lead their lives. It’s difficult for parents to find activities and tasks that are child-centered, child-oriented. Yet this is something that parents, mothers and fathers, caring adults may want to consider. How to change the daily routine of living in an adult-centered society into activities that are child-centered. These would be very important activities for kids.

Look for us again for future programs that may help mothers and fathers, adults, and caring relatives to center their children on a healthy and fitful life. I’m Dr. Susan Turben. Remember that all children are vulnerable and at risk today. Children are abused and neglected because they have never had adults who know or appreciate the skills and talents of an infant, a child, or a young person. If we have a society where children are at risk it may be wise to transform some of our own energy as adults to understanding how to create a child-centered, a priority in which children come first. 

Ask Dr. Susan