You could say that babies are the perfect model for how to live comfortably in naturally-aligned bodies. They inhabit their bodies fully, with profound, instantaneous awareness of the most subtle sensations. They really don’t have much else to do, since their time isn’t spent in conceptual thinking, the way it is with adults and older children. In fact, babies are as close to their animal nature as they ever will be, acting on instinct, sensing and innate drive. From the moment they are born, they’re on a mission to move, learn, and thrive. They work hard at mastering the essentials of rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing, walking and eventually running. Given the right opportunities, healthy babies are “up and running” in about a year’s time—give or take a few months.
What is striking–and alarming–about babies today is how many of them encounter delays in motor development, as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders. This problem has become so widespread, without explanation, that many doctors and parents have resigned themselves to believing that this is the status quo; that each baby has its own timetable, and sooner or later, they all figure out what to do. While there is some truth to this, “over-believing” in the idea of a wide variation in children’s natural development becomes a rationalization for overlooking a far deeper and more significant problem. This comes at a high price for many children and can affect their health for a lifetime.
It appears that our entire society, without realizing what we’ve done, has dis-empowered our babies physically and very likely prevented some of them from developing normally. In many cases, this begins the day they are born.
Proponents of natural posture make a strong case for this: all species of vertebrates come into the world with a very precise structural design for carrying out the physical movements and tasks essential to that species. Cheetahs are designed to catch small, fast animals like rabbits and gazelles, while giraffes are designed to eat leaves on tall trees. Humans are designed to have upright spines, whether sitting, squatting, standing, walking or running—all activities that support different tasks related to our survival. Rather than just existing on the surface of the earth, vertebrates are designed to engage against the earth through a phenomenon known as ‘ground reaction force.’
Here’s how ground reaction force works: If a cat wants to jump up onto a high wall, it will first crouch down (the higher the wall, the lower it crouches) to gather its internal resources before leaping upwards by pushing off against the ground. Without the ground to push against, jumping would be weak and lifeless. You can feel how ground reaction force works in your own body right now by slowly pressing your foot into the floor and feeling the response that is generated in your leg as a result of the pressure against the ground. Or try jumping and see how far you get if you don’t “engage with the earth.”
In the case of a brand new baby, it is the mother’s or father’s body, the crib mattress, or the blanket on the floor that all serve as representatives of the earth. I was quite surprised when I learned that a newborn infant, placed skin to skin on its mother’s abdomen at birth, if left there without interference, will mobilize itself by wriggling and writing its way against her body, until, usually in less than half an hour, it has found, all on its own, the mother’s breast and begun to nurse. Although most babies do not do this, just the fact that they can move in this way, reveals important information about how infants are far from helpless, powerless blobs. Truly, they are not meant to just lie around for the first several months of their lives.
It is these earliest movements, when lying “belly to earth,” pushing down against the earth, that fire off uncountable sensory and motor neurons in the spinal cord and the enteric nervous system in the abdomen (the brain in the gut, as it is sometimes called) and appears to lay tracks to the brain in an essential process of building and developing a vital, well-functioning nervous system. In addition, belly-to-earth time, and lots of it, simultaneously builds the deep core that will be needed to stabilize the skeleton in an upright position.
When babies are relegated to lying on their backs, either flat on a mattress or blanket, as well as spending hours a day tipped onto their backs in strollers, car seats, bouncy seats, swings and plastic carriers, they miss out on this essential belly-to-earth experience that is so necessary to their healthy development.
A perfect storm has developed over recent decades that has directly contributed to a lack of core development in babies. Before the 1970s, strollers were rarely used, as were car seats, that didn’t become mandatory until the mid-80s in most states. Obviously, car seats are essential when babies are in a car, but the accumulation of one such sitting device after another is what adds up to far too much time spent on the back of the pelvis. Add to this the Back-to-Sleep Campaign (now called “Safe to Sleep” Campaign) initiated by pediatricians in an effort to reduce the number of babies dying of SIDS, and no matter how you feel about this policy, it has contributed to many more hours on the back. In fact, except for carefully supervised bursts of “Tummy Time” (more about that in another post) most young parents today are afraid to put their babies on their tummies.
This is a controversial and complex topic, so I will be addressing various aspects of this in upcoming blog posts that will include discussion of why Tummy Time is often too little, too late for some babies, how aspects of this may relate to positional plagiocephaly (or flat-head syndrome), torticollis, head lag, SIDS, un-integrated primitive reflexes, and the out of control epidemic of autism spectrum and sensory processing disorders.
It will take nothing short of a movement—one that has more questions than answers, at this point—that can open our eyes and our minds to how we, as a society, can best work together to protect our children’s health.
In what ways have you observed society impact children’s neurodevelopment and physical development? How do you think we can overcome these challenges?
Your comments and ideas are welcomed and encouraged as we collectively strive to better understand the rapid rise of health issues that have, in recent years, befallen our children.