Whether a parent is a champion powerlifter or the proud owner wearer of a dad bod, it’s a great idea to introduce a baby to the benefits of exercise early on. That said, though physical activity in infants has far-reaching rewards, for the first six months, babies can’t really support their own heads. No amount of weighted chin tucks or barbell neck bridges are going to beat nature here, so it’s best to wait until the baby can lift the old dome before beginning a serious training regime. It’s safe to assume that most babies will be ready at around six months old.
“The more physical activity that you can do with an infant, the more opportunities the infant will have to develop a strong foundation of physical skills,” says Dr. Stephen Sanders, professor in the College of Education at the University of South Florida and author of Encouraging Physical Activity in Infants. “Children learn about their bodies and environment by moving, and the more they can be physically active the better.”
For infants, movement and exploration are essential for building a strong foundation for childhood and beyond. “What we know from research is that infants and toddlers who develop a strong base of motor skills tend to use those skills to be physically active as adults,” Sanders says. “Children who do not acquire these motor skills will likely experience difficulty in engagement in physical activity throughout life.”
Four Ways to Give a Baby Excercise
- Roll her on her front. Tummy time is fun for babies and fun for parents, and it is shown to benefit babies’ motor skills.
- Lean him over. Make sure he’s supported by your body and allow him to use his own muscles to pull himself back on-balance.
- Lift her up high. Place her high on your shoulder so she can practice using her own strength to stay upright.
- Use objects. Skip the kettlebells for the time being and have baby grip safe toys to improve motor skills.
There is reciprocity between physical activity and motor skills. As the competency of an infant’s motor skills increase, Sanders says, so does their increased participation in activity. That increased participation feeds back into increasingly developed motor skills. This is all interlinked with other critical functions such as hearing, vision and spatial perception all of which benefit from frequent and repeated practice.
In fact, this physical activity influences a baby’s development in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Research shows that these early experiences shape a child’s future in myriad ways beyond physical strength, showing evidence of cognitive, social, and perceptual development, and that an ability to balance can also be correlated with increased aptitude in heady academic subjects like math.
One of the first things parents can do with a baby is to start off with a bit of tummy time. When the baby is ready, roll her on to her stomach. “When an infant can hold her head up without assistance from an adult they are ready to be placed on their stomach for play,” Sanders says, adding that this has measurable benefits for physical development. “Infants who are placed frequently in the prone position on their stomachs score higher on measures of motor development. Infants who spend more waking hours on their backs may actually experience motor delays.”
Workout sessions for infants should focus on balance and strength. Parents can use their own body to support their baby, gradually increasing the kid’s reliance on their own muscles by gently placing them off-balance. This can involve daily activities where parents put their baby in an unbalanced position where they must right themselves using their own motor skills and strength. “Infants who are learning to sit up can be held from behind sitting on the parent’s lap so they can be leaned one way or the other,” Sanders says. “This encourages them to tighten their muscles to remain on-balance.”
Another way to get a baby to practice balance is to hold them high up on the parent’s shoulder. With less of Dad to hold on to for support, the kid will rely on their own strength to support themselves and to look around at the world. When the kid is ready, parents can also introduce objects to help them strengthen their grip and improve dexterity. “Strength activities, where an infant practices grasping objects, are good for young infants,” Sanders says.
Sanders reiterates that neck strength must be developed enough before exploring any of these exercises. “Any of these activities should wait until the infant can hold head up by himself,” he stresses.
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