Friday, March 28, 2008

Exercising Baby

A floppy newborn who can’t lift her head or control her limbs may not seem like a candidate for exercise, but she is: exercising baby (most of which she’ll passively do herself) is exactly how she'll grow stronger and learn to coordinate movements. Parents today tend to keep their newborns in bucket-seat carriers much of the time, which not only deprives them of needed human contact, but prevents them from moving and developing their muscles.

Passive exercise is one of the first ways for the baby to develop balance, coordination, and muscle tone. When you’re carrying the baby and moving, the baby is not a floppy dead weight; they begin to hang on, they conform to your body, and they stabilize themselves (by contrast, imagine holding something truly floppy, like a large freezer bag half-full of water). Even in the first few days after birth, their muscles will try to hold them in a partial fetal position, arms and legs bent, and they will resist being stretched out to full length, as they do when the doctors measure them and assess neonatal (newborn) muscle tone.

You’ll notice that your baby, whether you're holding her or she’s lying down, is often moving: squirming her legs, flailing her little arms. In a word, exercising. But while she can and will do this exercise herself, doing baby sit-ups and baby gymnastics with her is fun for dads and good for babies.

For baby sit-ups, lie your baby on your lap with her feet against your stomach and her head on your knees, and let her grasp your thumbs while you grasp her forearms. Pull her gently up by the arms until she is in a sitting position. She’ll be shocked—her world view has changed! You can also move her arms back and forth to engage her movement and muscle response.

Here’s how we do baby gymnastics: Lie the baby on her back and hold onto her legs, alternate pumping them and tell her she is “running, running, running.” Then bicycle her legs and tell her she is “bicycling to work, bicycling home again.” Then push her leg gently to her head or to the opposite arm and say “One, two, one two,” as if you are counting the number of leg presses she’s doing. Then grab both legs and pull them off the ground and say, “Hoppy frog, hoppy frog, gymnastics.”

Maybe it’s the singsong voice, maybe the pure absurdity of movement, or maybe the sheer joy of exercise but we’ve never met a baby who didn’t love to work out in this way.

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