Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Best Start Possible

On my morning walks I travel through a park where there are a lot of mothers out with their babies, and the other day I saw something that really caught my attention. I saw an infant in a baby carriage. Yes, an actual baby carriage. Not a car seat on a stroller framework, but an old-fashioned baby carriage. I was so impressed, I asked the mother if I could take a photo, and here it is: 

She told me she’d had to go to a lot of trouble to find this particular piece of equipment. She said they’re expensive, and not common. She finally found this one, used, online. She didn’t know why she felt so strongly about getting a baby carriage, as opposed to a car-seat on wheels – she just had a “feeling” that it was the right thing to do.

Let’s explore where this “feeling” might have come from.

First, let me say this very clearly: Car seats are absolutely vital for transporting infants and young children in the car. They're specially designed to save lives in the event of a collision. Don't move an inch without one for your baby. 

Now, back to our exploration of that “feeling.”

Let’s begin with a visualization experience.

Imagine that you’re in a semi-reclining padded chair. Imagine also that your neck is weak, so your head rests within a bolster cushion that keeps it in position. It’s comfortable enough, and you’re cozy enough. Now, imagine that you’ve been in it for an hour. Then another hour. Then another hour. You might be out of it for a little while, then back in it, for another hour. And another hour.

Just thinking about this, how do you feel? What do you notice in your body? What physical or emotional impulses do you have?

Now put yourself in the place of an infant. Realize that, as an infant, your job is to move in many important ways, experiencing your body in space, your limbs in relation to each other and your core, your spine as your central axis, your head in relation to your spine, your ability to move against gravity, and more – much, much more.

Sitting in your recliner chair, how fully and easily can you…
• experience that you have a spine, by flexing and rotating it?
• move your arms and legs, from the shoulder or hip?
• feel the muscles of your midsection activating, as you move the rest of your body?
• experience your body’s ability to shift position and move in space?
• lift and rotate your head?
• follow through on your impulses to move and explore?

Now – imagine yourself lying on a flat surface – a blanket on the floor, or on your bed, on your stomach or your back. How fully and easily can you…
• experience that you have a spine, by flexing and rotating it?
• move your arms and legs, from the shoulder or hip?
• feel the muscles of your midsection activating, as you move the rest of your body?
• experience your body’s ability to shift position and move in space?
• lift and rotate your head?
• follow through on your impulses to move and explore?

It’s very likely that you noticed a difference. Being on a flat surface allows much more freedom in how and where we move. (And it's important to experience that flat surface on both our back and our front. "Tummy time" is a developmental imperative, for reasons I won't go into here - but this article about Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex should give you a clue.)

Why does all this matter? Because the ultimate result of whole-body movement is the efficient “wiring” of your mind-body system so you can develop and refine your perceptual apparatus, and (eventually) think and learn easily. Without sufficient movement, infants are likely to have a very challenging time growing into natural, spontaneous learners.

Laura Sobell, infant specialist, has written a wonderful book titled Save Your Baby – Throw Out Your Equipment, where she describes many aspects of modern baby-management equipment and practice that are actually harmful to the developing child, and what to substitute for them. She has told me that she can tell if a child has spent too much time in a car seat, because when she picks him up, his back is stiff, with little flexibility.

She recommends baby carriages over car-seat-strollers. (And especially for newborns she most highly prefers something called an “umbrella stroller” or “sling stroller”, which keeps the baby “flexed, rolled up, and cuddled” while still on its back. She emphasizes, “It is best to keep little babies in the reclined position.”2 She also strongly counsels against carriers in which the newborn is held in a vertical position against your chest; and bouncy-seats, which she says contribute to brain-shaking and are hard on joints and muscles.3 For more information, see her website, www.calmbaby.com. Click the “Save Your Baby” link.)

In general, the experts I’ve heard speak, agree that babies should not be propped in a seated or upright position until they can sit on their own, or helped to stand and walk until they can stand on their own. This whole topic is a big one, and deserves more space than I have here.  

So, limiting physical movement is one reason to be concerned about over-use of portable car seats. And there’s another reason, as well: it limits sensory stimulation through touch.

In her book Smart Moves – Why learning is not all in your head (2005), neurobiologist Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. discusses many aspects of whole-body integration and activation that must be present to build the sensory networks for learning to occur. Consider these statements:

Just the act of being touched increases production of a specific hormone within the brain - Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) - that stimulates axon growth and nerve net development, helps maintain neuronal function and increases synthesis of acetylcholine.

When touch is lacking, children and adults exhibit depressed motor and mental functioning. There may in fact be a connection between lack of touch and lowered acetylcholine levels found in Alzheimer's patients. 

Touch, especially along the back, arms, hands, feet and face of the baby, stimulates growth of the sensory nerve endings involved in motor movements, spatial orientation, visual perception, and the stress response. If these nerve endings are not activated, the RAS (Reticular Activating System) that awakens the neocortex, will not operate fully. This leads to impaired muscular movements, curtailed sensory intake, overreaction to stress, and a variety of other emotional disturbances and learning defects.1   

How much touch do infants receive when they’re carted here and there, for hours at a time, in a portable car seat? Or, rather, How much touch are they missing out on? Traditional means of carrying include holding the baby in your arms, in a sling, and in an infant shawl. All of these provide tremendous tactile stimulation.

You may ask: Is an extra hour in a car seat going to thwart nature’s plan for infant movement and neural development? Of course not. But I believe it’s very healthy for parents to examine how many hours a day their children may be in a portable car seat, simply because of the convenience.  

Consider this. Not long ago I had a conversation with a conscientious young mother about this topic, and she began reflecting on a recent day, when she’d had her baby in the car seat…

• in the car, for her hour-long drive to a friend’s house
• sitting at her feet, for three hours while she helped the friend with her tax accounting
• back in the car, while she drove back to her neighborhood grocery store
• propped atop the grocery cart as she did her shopping, and
• at home, while she took a shower and cooked dinner.

She realized with horror that her infant had been in that car seat for more than eight hours. That’s one-third of that infant’s day. How often did she have days like this, without realizing it? And this was a careful, loving mother. What happens with children of neglectful parents? 

I’ll repeat my earlier comment: car seats are vital to use for transporting infants and young children in a moving vehicle. Now I’ll add that I believe the car seats should remain in the car. I heartily recommend that parents explore alternative means of carrying their child. Just because all this equipment is offered for sale, doesn’t mean it’s developmentally appropriate to use everywhere. It could mean that it’s a goldmine for the manufacturers and stores, that advertise to parents stressed by their role as caregivers to a new baby, who want to do “everything possible” for their child.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of learning-challenged children whose parents (I would learn, through casual conversation) had unknowingly over-used portable car seats and other baby-management devices. Now, when I’m out and about, and see young parents with a child in a car seat propped up at their table in a restaurant, or with baby-carrier in hand as they go through the shopping mall, I can’t help but feel concerned. Do I know that any particular child I see this way has spent “too many hours” in a portable car seat, and is destined to need special interventions? Well, no.  

But in this world of mushrooming numbers of children diagnosed with such challenges as ADD and ADHD, and accompanying learning issues, it behooves us to look at what has changed in the world of infant management techniques and equipment, and see if some of those changes may be contributing factors. Looking at what we’re doing, and making developmentally appropriate choices in regard to use of baby-management equipment, is a good place to start. The more we protect our children’s neural development through conscious choices and practices, the better chance they have to grow into spontaneous, joyful learners.

So, to the mother who had that “feeling” about finding a baby carriage for her infant: Well done! I congratulate you for bucking the portable-car-seat trend and following your instincts to find a more developmentally appropriate alternative. May many more follow your example!  

With warm regards,

P.S. I'd love to know your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Please "Post a Comment" below!
Click here for a link to the website for my book
Educate Your Brain
1 - Hannaford, Carla. Smart Moves - Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books, 2005. 44-46. 
Additional note: Each of these three statements quoted from Dr. Hannaford comes with its own citation(s). Please see her original text.
2 - Sobell, Laura. Save Your Baby - Throw Out Your Equipment. Santa Barbara, CA: Whole Family Press. 11.
3 - Sobell, Laura. www.calmbaby.com/saveyourbaby.html

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