Too Much Time in 5-Point Harnesses Can Stunt Kids’ Development, Says Movement Expert

The less kids can twist and look around, the more passive they become.

The 5-point child harness – you know, the up/down/across/between-the-legs belt configuration – worries Barbara Chutroo, a licensed social worker-turned-movement therapist. She’s not talking about the harnesses in car seats (although she says kids should be taken out of these anytime an adult stretches their legs, too). What really concerns her is the spread of these constrictive harnesses to highchairs, strollers, and beyond.

As she has written:

The primary task of young living beings is to develop control over their bodies, construct motor skills and organize sensory experience.  Infants and toddlers are living moving organisms. The impact of sustained inhibition of an infant or child’s motor activity can slow development in all of these areas…physical, cognitive and psychological.

Yikes.

While we, too, had noticed that tots in strollers can look like astronauts strapped in for lift-off, we didn’t realize how this might be providing the exact opposite of “safety,” by preventing kids from developing strong bones, well-aligned joints, and even the curiosity and intelligence that come from being able to look around and start figuring things out.

If this interests you, too, we highly recommend Chutroo’s 5-page paper on the topic, which Let Grow has published here.

We caught up with Chutroo for a Q&A:

“Please read this piece, folks!”

The Less Kids Move, The Less They Engage

LET GROW: Do you have any idea of exactly when 5-point harnesses became so ubiquitous?

BARBARA CHUTROO: No. It’s like someone came up with the idea of using them in everything. I’ve seen kids in tricycles strapped in. All of their autonomy is out the window. Sometimes I stop parents in the park and say, “I’m going to give you some entirely unsolicited advice and please shut me up if you don’t want to listen.”

LG: I’ll bet some of them do! But what do you say?

BC: I once told a woman, “You don’t have to use the shoulder straps. All they need is, maximum, a belt around the waist.” She took the shoulder straps off and he immediately sat up with this alert look on this face, and she said, “Oh my God!” She was thrilled to see how he went from being kind of spaced out to being alert and engaged just because he could sit up.

LG: What compels you to stop strangers in the park?

BC: If an adult could feel what is it like to sit in one of these things for an hour…

LG: I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Let’s twist again

BC: And for an infant, it makes a huge difference. That’s when the pelvis and back are developing, and the constant rotation of the body stimulates the structural reorganization of the spine and pelvis and the formation of the hip joints. So they really need to be constantly doing that twisty thing for their bones to shape properly. It’s like that experiment with the perfect atmosphere –

LG: The Biosphere! That giant dome where everything was supposed to grow in a perfectly controlled atmosphere filled with people, plants and animals — but it didn’t work, right?

BC: There was no wind, and the tree branches fell down. Because even the tress needed movement for them to have strength.

LG: What about babies in papooses? They’re totally restrained.

BC: Once they’re out of the papoose they’re on their own.

LG: True – no strollers.

To flail is to fail

BC: And because they’re in a constrained device – the papoose – they can push against it, as opposed to kind of flailing with nothing to press against, and get a sense of their own bodies. I have no idea if more extensive research has been done, but by the age of one they’re out and they don’t get put back in.

LG: So what’s going wrong in the harnesses?

BC: When babies are born, the organization of their bones can’t support a walking body – it has to change. And it changes through movement.

For instance, crawling is really good for the development of the back and the pelvis and the alignment of the legs. When babies crawl, they pull up their foot and their big toe pushes, and the action of pushing straightens out the leg and the way you push from your big toe sends the energy through to your hip joint, strengthens the leg and makes it strong.

LG: The more you move, the stronger you grow.

Kids’ brains need feedback from their bodies

BC: But you grow more aware, too. For instance, children are running less [nowadays]. But running creates what’s called “spatial intelligence.” Because if you’re running around trees or objects – in doing so, your brain organizes a spatial map. And your eyes have to learn how to measure distance. Development is a sensory learning process.

LG: Yes, I learned from your paper that development doesn’t just happen naturally, with the passage of time. It happens through, to begin with, movement! You wrote:

Infants’ brains have fewer neurological networks than those of adults but they grow rapidly.  This rapid neurological organization of experience occurs in response to sensory and movement stimulation.  Piaget said, the child’s first stage of cognitive development (thinking) is sensory motor, meaning that infants think through sensory and movement explorations.  As a child receives sensory information, the child organizes a sense of the world and of his or her body.  An infant must figure out “How do I roll over?,”  “How do I grasp this ball?,”  “What does this sound signify?”,  They pay sustained attention to each sensory motor task.  This is the child’s first encounter with problem solving. Learning to sit up, learning to roll over, each task is a problem to solve with time and attention, each solution is linked to a new neural organization of the brain…

Which is why –

It’s like driving vs. being the passenger

BC: Parents see their kids immobilized and think, “Oh! My child is safe!” What parents don’t understand is that when a kid has physical strength — that’s where self-confidence comes from. When kids play and climb and they can pull themselves up it’s, “Wow – look what I can do.” It’s a wonderful feeling and that’s the basis for child wellness.

Restraining infants for sustained periods of time removes countless opportunities for growth and problem solving, and interrupts their attention which needs practice in order to develop. At a time when learning takes place at breakneck speed, preventing movement impedes the ongoing prompts throughout the day that stimulate cognitive development.

Training the young to be passive

LG: Your whole essay really opened my eyes to a part of childhood I hadn’t given much thought to even when I pondered why childhood anxiety is on the rise – and, from what I’ve witnessed, so is a strange sort of passivity. You wrote:

Organisms, animals, and children can be trained or conditioned to passivity.  The psychological literature identifies this state as learned helplessness, a mental condition that results from repeated failure. Success is necessary for learning. When an effort repeatedly fails to elicit the desired response, as happens when children are restrained for hours from sitting up or twisting and turning, the result is submission and surrender. Motivation diminishes and can vanish. The child no longer attempts to sit up or otherwise be engaged. The brain shuts down.

Where resilience comes from

LG: You have convinced me that this new level of safety, like so many others we’ve documented at Let Grow, is not only unnecessary, it’s counter productive. Can you sum it up in one simple phrase?

BC: Children become well by running around and playing and discovering things on their own. Of course, they’ve got to be reasonably safe. But resilience isn’t something that happens in the mind. It is to some degree a learned process. You can’t do that from the outside.

Barbara Chutroo

Barbara Chutroo has master’s degrees in social work and dance/movement therapy.  She has worked as a clinician and has taught psychology and child development at New York City College of Technology and Borough of Manhattan Community College. She believes in the importance of the experience and organization of the body in child development.