Barbara Chutroo, LCSW, MSDMT
The focus of parenting advice and instruction has shifted over the years. At present, developmental specialists direct their attention to the important benefits of attentive caregiving and the call and response style of interaction as well as the negative impact of household stress. But physical development has moved to the back burner, perhaps because we live in an era when fewer physical demands are made of us as adults and we perceive physical safety as more important than the development of complex, possibly hazardous, motor skills. It is presumed that children will learn the basics – to stand and to walk. As for running, jumping and climbing, parents may see these stages of growth less as essential organic processes that children naturally move through than as dangerous undertakings requiring a high level of caregiver caution and oversight. The principle interventions utilized out of this concern and to save children from the bumps and bruises that often accompany childhood developments are 1) to restrict children’s activities and 2) to apply the ubiquitous physical restraints (five point harnesses) that are found in most infant and toddler care devices.
Body harnesses that hold a child’s torso, shoulders and pelvis in one position, and molded bucket seats that impede movement, are everywhere. Although infants are necessarily restrained in vehicles, the use of harnesses has carried over to strollers, high chairs, tricycles, and every manner of container device. Infants and toddlers may find themselves continuously restrained while being carried, sitting, bathed, while reclining awake, and often, by default, for sleeping despite pediatric recommendations that children be put to sleep unencumbered on a firm flat surface and reported instances of sleeping infants being dangerously entangled. Bumpo seats, in which older infants are placed to prevent them from crawling away, immobilize the lower body impacting development of the pelvis, hip joints, and spine.
Parents and caregivers utilize all these container devices, with their attendant restraining buckles and ties, and are content in assessing their charges as safe and secure.
Why is this developmentally ill-advised?
Spending long periods of time so restrained is ill advised for several reasons. Development involves growth of a child’s body with all its attendant neurological, muscular, skeletal, respiratory, circulatory, and psychosocial systems. 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. It is multidimensional occurring in all three developmental domains–physical, cognitive and psychological.
1. Physical development. The most obvious impact is physiological. Hard molded plastic seats impede rotation of the body and movement of the legs and pelvis. While restrained in a harness, an infant cannot sit up, turn around, arch, twist, or flex. Volitional movement can only occur of the head, arms and legs.
A baby’s form is different from that of an adults. A baby’s bones are not yet calcified, they are made of soft cartilage and will harden and calcify over time. The spine has only one simple “C” shaped curve, not the four mature curves of an adult, these curves form in response to a baby’s movement. The legs are bowed and the feet are flat, the joints of the pelvis are shallow.
The soft bones of an infant are easily molded. This ability was sadly taken advantage of by the practice of foot binding of young girls in early China. Healthy bones develop in conjunction with the normal movement explorations of infancy and early childhood, the pull of the muscles and tendons on the bone gives them shape – muscle and bone grow in synchrony. The cervical curve of the spine forms as the child lifts her head, the lumbar curve, as she arches her back, crawls, and presses into standing. The curves give the back stability and structure. A baby’s legs straighten as she crawls and pushes forward with her feet and the joints and bowl of the pelvis deepen as she twists and turns. The 26 bones and surrounding muscles and arches in each flexible foot take shape as the foot is challenged to respond to variable contact with the ground.
As children begins to stand, walk and run, the weight bearing activities of running, pulling and climbing help to strengthen the bones and muscles. The strenuous pounding of running that children so love will build strong bones. The best and easiest time for strong bones to develop is during this early period while they are forming.
Of course, the heart and lung likewise grow in synchrony with activity. The organs need to be challenged in order to grow strong. Recent research supports the correlation between vigorous activity and strong cardiovascular health (Science Daily). Time and the constantly repeated action of healthy movement patterns, which children tend to engage in, contribute to the formation of a healthy integrated body in every aspect.
2. Stress. One impact of restraining movement is stress. Restraint is known among research scientists as a source of stress in animals. Lab rats are restrained when researchers want to induce stress so as to evaluate its effect. Stress alters the body’s biochemistry. Levels of stress hormone, cortisol, elevate; long-term exposure to elevated cortisol levels is associated with anxiety, depression, difficulty learning, and impaired decision making.
3. Autonomy, Volition and agency. Erik Erikson said that the primary task of toddlerhood is to develop autonomy. Autonomy, the ability to do things on one’s own and take control of one’s actions, is associated with volitional movement or a sense of agency. A child builds his or her volitional capacity step by step, adding on, day by day, to a repertoire of “I cans” a lovely phrase of the philosopher, Husserl. It starts very simply, “I can swallow”, “I can direct my gaze”, I can smile and prompt my caretaker to smile in response”, “I can grasp and hold on”, “I can lift my head”, and “I can twist and turn and learn to do all these interesting things with my body”. These acquired skills, ultimately, enable a child to move through space with competence. Every mastery of a volitional movement, every addition to the repertoire of “I cans”, enhances a child’s capability and feeds her confidence and self-esteem. There are countless tiny motor and sensory capabilities a child must master on the road to adulthood. Left to their own devices, children, do so at breakneck speed, they have no time to waste, and relish the process with great pride and joy.
3. Emotional self regulation. Amongst the volitional capacities developed early on is the ability to lean forward and back and to turn the head and the body away from and toward. Learning to turn the head and body is more than a motor skill, it is an essential tool for emotional regulation.
Children enjoy and need stimulation but, like the rest of us, they become tired and overwhelmed. At these points they will, if they can, turn their heads and bodies away to reduce stimulation and process their experience. When an activity level is too stressful, children physically retreat to create a quiet space for themselves in which to rest. They have no control over what is happening around them but can in this way, at the very least, regulate their exposure to stimulation. Thus, volitional movement provides critical support to emotional self-regulation. A harness, that pins a child back and prevent rotation of the body, limits his or her ability to manage experience by these simple but vital movements away from and toward, and leaves the child helpless to act in the face of excessive stimulation.
4. Attention, interest, curiosity. Amy Cuddy points out, in her widely viewed TED talk, that our posture is associated with psychological states. A physical attitude of retreat and withdrawal, is associated with defeat and helplessness. An attitude of attention is one in which the body is brought forward, head up, alert. Most seats hold children back with their spine in a “C” curve. A child whose shoulders and pelvis are pinned to seat in this position is locked in a posture of retreat and defeat.
Attention, interest, and curiosity are qualities of the body as much as they are abstract qualities of mind. Envision a dog who sees a squirrel. He is still but his head and nose extend, the tail lengthens, the entire body quivers with nervous excitement. His body is a pointed arrow ready to spring. However, if the dog is distracted or lifted out of this posture, the attention is gone. The “attention to squirrel” and the body posture are one.
Children, likewise, attend to the world with their bodies. They move toward that which interests them, their bodies positioned in a happy alert state; one can easily note from a child’s posture if he or she is absorbing, processing, and enjoying the world. Attention, interest and curiosity are qualities of learning, hence qualities to be encouraged. In physically holding children back, their mind state is likewise discouraged from taking interest in the world. But attention and volition go hand in glove. As noted above, a child regulates the processing of new information by moving toward and away at will. Our bodies move in rhythm to our mind states and the mind state changes in rhythm to the body. Therefore, the body and mind are best allowed to grow and develop without restraint.
5. Problem solving. 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. Infants seek out new experience to feed their rapidly growing brains, their drive to grow directs them to pay attention with curiosity to every movement skill and sensory exposure. This practice strengthens attention. As children gain in skill, they also have the deep satisfaction of successful achievement. 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 break neck speed, preventing movement impedes the ongoing prompts throughout the day that stimulate cognitive development.
Learned Helplessness vs Resilience/Industry and self esteem.
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.
When we physically restrain an infant for many hours of the day, he or she becomes conditioned to inactivity which is the only option available. This passivity, or learned helplessness, is, sadly, also associated with depression and anxiety.
Joy. On the other hand, the joy children display when running, jumping and acquiring new skills is apparent in their expressions and shouts of glee. Toddlers run with radiant excitement. The dull demeanor of dejected surrender that follows the injunction to slow down and be still is equally evident. When we allow children spontaneous active free play, we feed their happiness but we rob them of their joy when we limit, reduce, confine, and overly structure their joyful play.
Movement defines life; awareness, as well, is based in movement because awareness emerges from dynamic participation in the environment around us.
Children are naturally loud and active, behaviors adults sometimes find understandably tiresome. But they do, in time, slow down as their pace of growth slows down. However, when we slow them down prematurely, to match our adult sense of propriety, we undermine a period of development that is naturally suited, with all of its activity, to prepare children for adulthood. In encouraging children to behave like adults prematurely, their adulthood may be more characteristic of old age than of healthy young adulthood. And, in fact, along with obesity, doctors are noting a rise in childhood osteoporosis and heart disease.
Researchers have also noted a rise in depression and anxiety and a decline in cognitive skills in children over the past 30 years. Whereas there are other contributing factors, among them, some argue, the growing obsession with electronic devices, bullying, and the goal-oriented nature of the educational system, children who are given the option of frequent robust active play, from infancy on, will discover resources within themselves that help to counter the stress of modern life.
It is imperative for parents to challenge the widespread belief that it is beneficial to restrain children from moving. Children’s efforts to twist and squirm, stand and drop down, must not be view with concern and suspicion but understood as impetus for growth. Continuous vigorous activity from birth onward supports development at every level.
Rather than view their role as to protect children from bumps and bruises, parents need keep in mind that their charge is to prepare them to face the stress and inconveniences of life with resolve and thus become capable resilient adults.
One start is to provide infants, as much as possible, with opportunities for unimpeded movement exploration on varied surface and toddlers with frequent opportunities to crawl, climb, swing and run. They will gain in skill and strength, in confidence and pride. They will persevere and discover the joy of their own achievements.
McMaster University. “Physical activity in preschool years can affect future heart health.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 June 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190611081914.htm>.