Babies need lots of active movement and play – and there are simple ways to help them achieve this


Danae Dinkel, University of Nebraska Omaha

When people set personal fitness goals and establish their exercise routines, there’s one cuddly group that often gets left out: infants!

Historically, active infant movement has been viewed as a personality characteristic. Infants are assumed to be very active on their own, without the need for adult intervention to encourage movement.

However, research reveals that the choices, behaviors and daily habits of adults have a great influence on how much infants move.

I am a physical activity teacher and searcher. Over the past five years, I have conducted several studies exploring infant movement, seeking to identify what promotes the development of lifelong physical activity habits.

I’ve learned that many parents and other caregivers want to encourage infants to play and move actively. However, they often don’t know for sure how much physical activity an infant needs, nor do they often recognize how their own behaviors might limit an infant’s physical activity. Fortunately, there are several simple – and fun – ways to add more physical activity to a baby’s daily life.

Why infants need movement – ​​and how much

The study of infant movement is a relatively new field, so there is still a lot to learn. However, one of the seminal studies in the field was published in 1972 and found that increased physical activity in infants can improve motor development. More recent research shows that increasing infant movement can improve bone health and personal and social development – skills related to improving one’s autonomy or interacting with others, such as eating or saying goodbye.

the World Health Organization suggests that infants should be physically active several times a day, especially through interactive floor play. Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends opportunities for interactive play throughout the day, as well as at least 30 minutes of “tummy time” with an adult – which I’ll discuss in more detail below.

Yet half of the parents who participated in our research said they hadn’t heard of these recommendations and wished more specific guidelines on encouraging active play.

What are the obstacles ?

While research is ongoing, I and other researchers have identified three major barriers to active infant movement: screen time, restrictive devices, and “gendered play” – related stereotypes, beliefs, and practices. to gender in relation to the way children play.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations discourage allowing infants to spend time in front of a screen other than video chat. However, a recent study found that children between the ages of 0 and 2 can between 36 and 330 minutes of screen time per day. A 2019 analysis of data collected between 2008 and 2010 found that children’s screen time has increased from 53 minutes per day at age 1 to more than 150 minutes per day at age 3, suggesting that screen time habits begin to form very early.

Moreover, the World Health Organization suggests that infants should not spend more than an hour at a time in a restrictive device. Yet many adults abuse car seats, strollers, high chairs, or other “containers” that restrict movement. For example, in a 2018 study of child care centers in the United States, Canada, and Australia, only 38% to 41% of establishments followed this WHO guideline.

Researchers have found that when infants spend more tummy time, they move more overall and their gross motor skills and development improve. JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Research on adult physical activity consistently shows that men are more active than womenregardless of age. Our research suggests this gap may begin in early childhood and be related to gendered play.

In our 2020 study exploring infant motor development in relation to parental promotion of play, we found that parents of male infants encouraged play more often than promoted gross motor skills: movement involving the large muscles that support activities such as walking, running or kicking. Parents of female infants more often made statements that promoted fine motor skills, which involves smaller hand and arm movements and supportive activities like reaching and grasping. We found that women had significantly higher fine motor skills than men.

We have documented additional barriers as well, including time spent eating, caring for the infant’s sleep schedule or other care needs; a need for a baby-proof environment; or weather and other environmental concerns.

How to support baby movement

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to break down these barriers — and none of them require buying expensive baby gear.

  • Encourage tummy time: Two to three times a day, place an awake baby on their belly for a few minutes, then play and engage with them. It is the primary method of assisting movement for infants who not mobile yet.
  • Exploring movement together: Doing activities that help babies learn movementlike bouncing the child on his lap and sing and play patty-cake or peek-a-boo, can encourage infants to move. Babies also watch what the adults around them are doing, including their activity level! In one of our studies, many mothers said be physically active themselvesbut few realized it was important to serve as a role model regular physical activity for infants.
  • Creating a Safe Play Space: As Infants learn to move and better control of their feet and hands, even normal household objects, such as small objects they can put in their mouths and choke on, become potential hazards requiring adult intervention. Protect them by decluttering and removing potentially dangerous items from at least one space 5 feet by 7 feet.
  • No equipment? No problem ! : No new or expensive equipment is needed to encourage baby’s movement. Use things around the house: Pillows can be stacked into a “mountain” for crawling. Mixing bowls and measuring cups can also be used as toys. Adults can also turn their own body into a baby climbing gym. For example, sit on the floor with your legs apart and encourage the baby to push up or crawl on it.
  • Go outside: national guidelines recommend take infants out two to three times a day, time permitting. Our research suggests children are more physically active when they play in the parks, playgrounds and other open spaces that allow for gross motor activities like crawling and walking. the benefits of active outdoor play may also include improved self-control, attention, communication, and social development.

To motivate us, my family takes the 1,000 hours outdoors challenge, a project encouraging children and adults to spend at least as much time outdoors as we do watching screens.

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Finally, it should not depend solely on the parents. Research has linked social support through siblings and peers, child care providers and teachers with increased physical activity in children.

Trust me: As a physical activity researcher and mother of three, including an 11-month-old who is learning to walk, I can attest that when adults and older children play with my baby, it empowers me. opportunity to accomplish something. on my to-do list and gives my baby more opportunities to move.

Danae DinkelAssociate Professor, Department of Health and Kinesiology, University of Nebraska Omaha

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