Why and How Babies and Toddlers Should Get Moving
By Julia E. Sweet

Is Your Baby a Couch Potato?

You stop by your baby’s daycare provider on your way to the grocery store. It’s
10 a.m. and all is well: the babies are nestled in their swings, quietly rocking back and forth. The next day, you swing by the center at noon to drop off a sweater in anticipation of a chilly afternoon and the infants are all securely strapped into their feeding tables. Friday, you decide to scoot out of work early and pick up your daughter at 3 p.m. Everything seems under control – all the infants are sitting in their baby bouncer seats, watching the mobiles overhead. You feel relieved to see how safe and mostly tranquil the children are for those eight hours. There is no reason for concern – or is there?

There is, according to the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE), a nonprofit organization that works to educate the public about the importance of physical education for all children and youth. Alarmed by the rise of the sedentary lifestyle, the NASPE recently published the first-ever physical activity guidelines for infants and toddlers.

Children – even newborns – need physical activity. The lack of appropriate exercise at any age is unhealthy. If they do not participate in adequate physical activity, young children are more likely to grow into sedentary adults. With one in five U.S. children overweight or obese, experts say that parents need to start promoting physical activity when their kids are young – very young.

In some daycare settings, babies spend significant portions of the day strapped safely into a seat, swing or highchair. Sure they have a couple of soft, textured toys to paw or gum, but are they really getting the full sensory experience that they need? Are they engaging all their muscles, stretching and flexing, exploring their environment with their bodies as well as their minds?

And this lack of activity doesn’t happen only in daycare. When I took my infant son, Noah, to the pediatrician, the doctor turned him over and looked at the back of his head. “His head isn’t flat. That’s a good thing,” she said. “So many babies are lying immobile on their back that they are developing flat heads with a balding patch there.”

She sees many parents who, with the best of intentions, work from home with baby lying next to them for hours while they type on the computer. Not only do children need to be taken out of those restrictive seats, parents and caregivers alike need to get involved in nurturing and fostering their physical-learning experience.

“Children develop skill through involvement in physical activity,” says NASPE Executive Director Judy Young, Ph.D. “And parent involvement plays a significant role in children developing motor competence and enjoying physical activity.”

Don’t have a spare hour to do personal training with your infant? Here’s the good news: Small doses throughout the day are probably more worthwhile than a full hour of intensive training followed by several hours of passivity.

style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">Get Moving, Baby!

According to the NASPE, here are the key points for a baby’s physical activity:

• Always keep the baby safe as she explores her world.
• Get actively involved with your baby’s activity.

• Don’t restrict your baby’s movement for long periods of time.

• Physical activities should help motor skills through the use of the large muscles – arms, legs and torso.

Ready, Set, Play!

Here are some great ways you can involve your baby in physical activity:

• Take your baby out of his seat and place him on his back on a soft towel or blanket. Take a lightweight pillowcase, chiffon scarf or square of fabric, and drape it over his legs. Play peek-a-boo with his feet, enticing him to kick off the small sheet. “Peek-a-boo! I see your feet. There they are!” Grab at his toes and wiggle his legs.

• While he is still lying on his back, dangle a small plush toy from a piece of yarn. Encourage your baby to reach out and swat or grab the colorful toy. Encourage rhythm by singing “one, two, three, whe-e-e-e!” as the toy swings back and forth.

• Do a raspberry on her belly. Lift up her shirt and make that funny little sound that causes babies to laugh and kick their arms and legs in total glee. Laughing is a great way to exercise your respiratory system and release endorphins. Best of all, who can keep a straight face when your baby is laughing – this puts Mom and Dad into a terrific mood as well.

• Place baby on her stomach, get on your stomach and go nose to nose with her. Rub noses and then place your head on the left side and then the right side of her head, encouraging her to look at you as you say, “You can’t find me! Where’s Daddy? Over here!” This will strengthen neck and upper body muscles and help her eye tracking and focusing.

• Pile up two or three small pillows. Holding your baby securely the entire time, place her on the pile on her tummy and roll her side to side. Place her on her back and do the same. Rocking your baby side to side helps her with postural awareness and strengthens muscles in the midsection needed for turning over. You can also do this by placing your baby on your lap and rocking side to side. (Baby slings are also great for this purpose.)

Finally, remember the goal is not to begin your child’s training for the Olympics, but to help him or her find pleasure in physical activity. Do that, and you have given your baby a gift for life.


American Heart Association – Activity and nutrition guidelines for children.  – Julia Sweet’s Web site offers tips and motivation for families to get fit.

National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) – 800-321-0789 – Call to order the full text of the guidelines for $13. Order stock number 304-10254.