At 18 months old, the toddler still couldn’t walk without support. His family thought he was a “slow” learner, but kinesiologist Poh Ying Bin knew better.
“Deep in my heart, I was screaming: The boy is not slow! It was because he wasn’t given the chance to go through developmental steps,” says Ying Bin, a rehabilitation specialist in private practice who has a special interest in developmental kinesiology (the development and movement of the body in childhood).
The tot was always either in a cot or a baby walker, and rarely explored different movements without support. As a result, he couldn’t build up his motor control skills and learn to walk upright and unaided.
Incidents like this have spurred Ying Bin to raise awareness on how improper use of baby gear can adversely affect babies’ development.
In the first year of life, babies learn to lift their heads, roll over, sit, crawl and stand before they start to walk. By 18 months, most of them learn to walk without the need for support, he explains.
But introducing baby gear such as sitting pillows, walkers or baby bouncers – before your little one is ready – may do more harm than good for motor control and development, he says.
Although these tools may appear to help them sit, stand or walk earlier, it doesn’t mean that their movement patterns and control are optimal, he adds.
It’s important that they experience the process of constantly trying, failing and refining their movements.
When you introduce an “artificial aid”, such as a walker, your baby will rely on it without first learning the necessary motor control. They also leave babies in a passive position they are not ready for.
“Over time, this may cause their bones, joints and muscles to develop in a less-than-ideal manner, affecting their posture in the future,” he says, adding that many adults that he sees for back and joint conditions have posture issues that could have their roots in early childhood.
Here, Ying Bin highlights five baby gear products that may affect your little one’s motor skills and how you can help your child develop better.
That said, you don’t have to throw out the fancy equipment yet. Use it when Baby is ready and only after she has shown that she can do similar movements without support, he advises.
1. Sitting pillow or seat
At around seven to eight months, babies who are learning to sit up will attempt “oblique sits”. This involves rolling over to the side and propping themselves up with their hand.
If you place Baby in a passive sitting position when she is not strong enough to sit on her own, she may not get enough opportunities to attempt this movement and skip this developmental stage, he explains.
Besides the less-than-ideal spine positioning, your little one may also take a longer time to master other important development milestones, such as crawling and standing.
Try this instead Offer plenty of floor time for your baby to get acquainted with lifting her head, flipping and rolling until she is ready to sit. If you are using a stroller or car seat, position your baby at a semi-reclined 45-degree angle to avoid overloading her hip joints, he adds.
Leaving your baby in a walker will encourage poor hip, knee and ankle movement, and motor control. Experts warn that it may even cause abnormal walking patterns, such as tiptoe walking.
“If you look at how babies ‘walk’ when they are in a walker, their legs are actually dangling and they are on their tippy toes. That’s not the ideal movement pattern for walking,” Ying Bin says.
In fact, this is one baby item you should throw out, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP). Mobile infant walkers are such a safety hazard that the AAP has called for a ban on the manufacture and sale of these devices in the United States.
Although a stationary activity centre, such as an exersaucer, be a safer alternative to mobile walkers, data on injuries while using these devices isn’t available, the AAP says.
Try this instead At around nine to 10 months, your baby may be able to pull herself up to stand with some support and may even attempt to cruise (walk sideways by holding furniture for support).
Provide stable support around the house to help Baby master the art of pulling herself to a standing position, and cruising.
“The things you need to help your baby stand and cruise are readily found in most homes, like a low coffee table, sofa or even a sturdy chest of drawers. Actually, healthy babies don’t need much aid to help them develop walking skills. All they need is a chance to explore movement and refine it,” he says.
3. Bouncing device
A bouncing giggling baby or toddler makes for a cute sight. But infant jumpers and other bouncing devices can potentially introduce more force/ stress on your child’s lower limbs than she is ready for.
“Up to three years old, most kids’ nervous systems have not developed the capability for jumping,” Ying Bin says. Some jumpers that suspend from a doorframe have also been recalled overseas because of safety issues.
Like other baby devices, jumpers can potentially lead to delayed motor skills when used excessively.
Try this instead Instead of rushing your toddler to meet this milestone, offer plenty of playtime in open spaces and at the playground.
This provides opportunities for your child to try out certain movement patterns she would not be able to practise in enclosed spaces. Plus, most kids pick up complex movements, such as jumping, by mimicking other kids.
4. Soft surfaces
A soft surface changes the way your baby’s natural movement develops as she cannot learn and refine her motor skills properly.
“Imagine getting an adult to learn a single leg squat on an unstable platform when he hasn’t mastered the skill on the hard ground. Soft mattresses have a similar effect on babies learning to move; they create too many challenges for your baby, who has to resort to compensating in other ways to move,” he explains.
Try this instead Ample floor time is best, but if you are really worried about Baby taking a tumble, use a thin, non-slip play mat. Check that your little one’s feet are not sinking into the mat – that means the material is too soft for her.
5. Swaddling cloth
Swaddling may soothe a fussy and colicky newborn, but how can she explore her surroundings if you keep her wrapped up for hours?
“When babies aren’t given the chance to move, their bones, muscles and joint structures cannot develop in a way that helps them to move well later in life,” Ying Bin explains.
Try this instead Swaddle Baby only at bedtime or when she takes a nap, and avoid restricting her movements when she’s awake and alert.
Although babies should always be placed on their back for sleep, the AAP says supervised tummy time during her waking hours is important. It strengthens muscles in the head, neck and upper body – all of which are required for healthy development and motor control.
Tummy time can start from the time your baby is a newborn, says AAP. One way to do so is the place Baby – belly-down – on your stomach or chest while you are awake and in a reclined position on a chair, bed or floor with a pillow to support your head, the AAP suggests. This helps Baby get used to being on her tummy.