Many studies have demonstrated the importance of babies achieving the key milestones of rolling, crawling, sitting, standing and walking within the first year (18 months to 2 years for walking), linking their achievements to success or otherwise later on in life, most particularly at school. What isn’t clear though is how to support our babies to develop the gross motor skills and appropriate brain circuitry needed for achieving and retaining these milestones.

In this busy, fast paced society many of our babies are being carried around in and out of cars and throughout various activities confined to their car seats or in commercial baby containers for much of the day. Else they are propped sitting, leaning or standing, or in contraptions that inhibit their natural urge to move. How can babies possibly build up the muscles and coordination they require with so little opportunity to practice their movements freely? How can a baby learn to roll over when they only have a short period of time each day lying on their backs on a flat surface with room to flap and experiment with their bodies? How can an infant learn to sit when propped up with cushions, attempting to use muscles that are not yet developed, and with the constant threat of losing their balance baulking their learning about the world around them? How can a child learn to balance safely on their feet if they are not given the chance to get to their feet and stay there on their own?

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A baby’s movement learning (the activation and pruning of relevant brain connections to allow them to safely and satisfyingly control their bodies) is optimised when they are free from stress and fear, when they have both time and space to freely experiment with their body’s movements, and when they are allowed to have that priceless moment of ecstasy at the eventual achievement of a new skill. The neural circuitry for “try => overcome frustration => succeed” is retained along with the new gross motor body control activations in the brain.

It is stressful for babies to be placed in positions where they are not comfortable or where they are stuck, unable to move safely into and out of the pose or situation. This stress in the brain inhibits learning (about the baby’s body, relationships and world) as the brain instead flexes its stress response system, endeavouring to keep our baby safe in this awkward posture. If the natural order of movement is allowed to blossom, our baby not only remains calm and fully open to learning about the world they have been born into, but can also begin to develop their sense of self – including their potential, being cause in their life and their will to learn – flowing through their movements from rolling to walking.

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When our baby is left to learn their own movement, they will usually learn to crawl briefly before they sit themselves up – the crawling skills give them a safe entry and exit from the strong, upright sitting posture. It’s worth noting that our baby will not choose bottom shuffling as their main mode of movement unless they have been propped up into a sitting position. In that position they find themselves stuck and so, ingeniously, find a solution to move around. Likewise, walking our baby around holding an adult’s fingers before they are ready gives the adult a sore back and is unlikely to assist our baby in learning to walk on their own. If anything it may extend the time baby takes to walk alone as they get so used to someone being there every step of the way and not allowing them the opportunity to monitor their own balance and practice their independence, perseverence and safe falling skills.

Babies who are given the gift of exploring their own potential may not achieve these skills any earlier than those who are directly assisted to do so. However they will be sure to complete them without missing vital developmental steps needed to achieve their full natural potential, and will learn them without creating negative side effects (e.g. muscle imbalance and over-developed brain stress response). This gift of freedom and opportunity also encourages positive side effects: a baby who is propped up will not recognise the moment when they can sit themselves up, but a child who has worked for themselves to achieve this skill definitely will!

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If developmental delays are apparent in our baby, who has been left to learn for themselves, at least the parents know that they gave their child every opportunity to do so and will be able to assist their child to “catch up” with professional help knowing they have done everything they could to date. Other babies being treated for apparent delays may simply not have been given the chance to follow their bodies’ natural urge to develop movement and the delays may not have occurred had they done so.

If left flat on their back with the sounds, smells, sights of their home and family around them whilst free to follow their body’s natural drive to develop their movement, they will be learning everything they need to know at that stage of their life: foundation for relationships, how the world around them works, how their own body works.

Where talking with our babies helps them learn language, and empathising with our babies helps them learn empathy, the best way for helping babies learn to move is giving them free opportunities to practice and then leaving them to it – they will almost certainly achieve each milestone beautifully, at the right time for them, and with all the bonus extras for later learning and self-esteem thrown in as well. Surely that’s got to be worth it!

For more information on nurturing natural movement in babies I recommend the following New Zealand resources:

First published in NZ Playcentre Journal September 2010. Also published in Brainwave Trust Aotearoa Newsletter.