This post has been renamed and expanded upon from its earlier publication as “Losing the Ballgame Before It’s Begun.”
After delivering a presentation at a conference on learning disabilities recently, I was approached by a number of parents whose children are challenged with a variety of neurological disorders. One after another, they said essentially the same thing to me: “You just told my child’s story!”
This isn’t a surprise. The story I had just told, using images as much as words, is one shared by babies everywhere in our modern world who spend almost every waking and sleeping moment in a supine position (on the back) or propped up in a semi-reclining position in one sort of device or another—a bouncy seat, a baby swing, a car seat or stroller—always with the weight of the body somewhere on the back of the pelvis. This, it turns out, is a physically disempowering position that, if used too much of the time, undercuts a baby’s ability to activate its primal connection to the earth in order to build and grow a healthy, fully-functioning nervous system. Even the thirty minutes of supervised “Tummy Time” recommended by doctors today falls woefully short of meeting the most basic developmental needs of babies in the earliest months of their lives.
Putting a baby in the positions pictured here causes the pelvis to tuck under into a “sad dog” position. Obviously, for a baby to be in this position some of the time is not a problem, but when done with great frequency, it can be the beginning of a whole string of unfortunate consequences. For one, this is the start of what will be the training of muscles in the front of the torso to habitually shorten, as well as to take on unnatural patterns of use. Ditto for the hip flexors, the psoas, and the hamstrings. Certain primitive reflexes present at birth fail to be fully integrated into the system when certain movements are missed. Just as seriously, a supine or semi-supine position interferes with the body’s ability to engage with the Earth in a phenomenon called ground reaction force (GRF) that plays an important role in neuromuscular development, which in turn plays a significant role in building the complex “circuitry ” of the brain. Whatever surface a baby is lying on represents the ground against which its body produces a “push-off” effect that reverberates in nerve cells and neural pathways throughout the body. Underneath it all, literally, is the skeleton, the framework of support that requires a precise interplay of aligned bones and elastic muscles that will provide stability for the organism, provided naturally processes are not disrupted.
What follows for many babies who live mostly on their backs is some sort of delay in motor development—late rolling over, late sitting up, late crawling—and in some cases, the appearance of quirky, hard-to-pin-down characteristics and symptoms that tend to place limits on the developing child’s ability to learn, or to be able to focus and pay attention, or to engage with and communicate in a satisfying way with others, or to see clearly with both eyes or to sleep soundly or to be pain-free. Most babies do eventually catch up, at least to one extent or another, but others never do. The occurrence of developmental delays has become so commonplace that the standards for what is considered “normal” are gradually changing. While the causes of an exploding epidemic of neurodevelopmental disorders may vary, what could turn out to be the most significant cause of all, disruption of the natural unfolding progression of a baby’s physical evolution, continues to be thoroughly overlooked. The fault for this belongs to no one, but the responsibility for repairing this situation belongs to all of us who recognize what is happening.
Like the bodies of all other creatures on the planet, the human body is designed to function in an ongoing relationship with the Earth, using our connection to it as the springboard for movement. GRF is essential to the firing of synapses and in driving a powerful internal engine. This “engine” may even play a role in myelination, a process only begun in the womb that insulates axons with a conductive sheath essential to the efficient transmission of messages between body and brain. These messages are transmitted through the white matter of the spinal cord by way of tracts that run to precise locations of the brain, setting up a complex web of connections, somewhat like the circuit board in a computer.
You can experience GRF for yourself! First, lie down on your back, with legs and hips slightly bent. Imagine you are new to this world, so new, in fact, that you haven’t developed control of your arms or legs. What options do you have for initiating movement at this point? Not much, right? You can move your arms and legs a bit, but that’s about all. How effectively can you engage down, other than resting upon the surface on which you’re lying?
Now lie down atop one or two bed pillows placed lengthwise under your torso, with your head on the mattress or floor in front of the pillow, chin down and the back of neck lengthened. This will reduce any stress to your non-baby spine. Newborns don’t straighten their legs, so bend yours up, at least partially into frog legs position. As you lie across the pillows, surrender your entire body into the Earth. Remember that whatever surface you are lying on is acting as the Earth, which we will hereafter refer to as the “ground”.
Here are the next steps:
— Begin by inititating little twitches in your body that cause your legs to move slightly into the surface beneath you. Feel how with each twitch, some bony joint of your body connects into the ground, such as a knee, elbow, wrist or ankle. Focus now on consciously directing these parts, separately and together ever-so-slightly deeper. Do this very slowly multiple times, and notice the subtle movements and sensations you experience. Notice what happens inside your torso and across your upper back, within your shoulders. Can you feel your pelvis shifting so that your pubis symphysis (pubic bone) slides toward your feet and your sit bones move apart? Can you feel your entire back widenening?
— Now add your belly into the mix and see what happens. Babies do this naturally, but as adults, we often have unnatural patterns in place that cause us to tighten our backs when we do this. You will want to feel your back lengthening and widening, not shortening and narrowing, so it can be helpful to imagine a book laid across your lumbar spine that you are lifting upward as you engage down with your arms and legs. This may take some practice if you are accustomed to sucking in your belly and arching your back. Keep at it, and soon you’ll be feeling your “core” waking up. This is NOT the kind of “core strength” that is acquired in a gym workout, but an authentic strength that is far more subtle, more elastic and penetrating. It is the “core of wellbeing” that comes alive through this belly-to-Earth encounter.
— Feel what is taking place inside you. Can you feel your deep “trans ab” muscle, wrapped around your torso like a cumberbund, engaging slightly as you move yourself into the Earth? This is akin to pushing a button that activates the body’s “second brain” or enteric nervous system where millions of neurons reside. As you continue to “lift the book” on your back, can you feel your spine elongate? This action opens the spinal cord, a repository for a billion-plus sensory and motor neurons and a conduit through which they communicate with the brain. Can you feel this neural superhighway moving all the way up under the center of your skull? This belly-to-earth experience establishes ground reaction force as it relates to Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Experiment with this until you understand it with both your body and your mind. This is what babies are doing.
A baby comes into this world as a part of the Earth, not apart from it. His or her connection to the Earth, to gravity, to energy, and other physical properties, will govern his physical wellbeing in the same way it governs everything else in this world. The newborn arrives here raring to go, with a body and nervous system just waiting to be developed. This task will be his primary job in the coming days and months. In order to do this, he must spend lots of time on his belly as well as his back. A newborn’s experience while lying on his back is largely characterized by receiving input from his external environment. On his belly, his world is now that of internal under-the-skin experience, propelled by the physical movements that help construct a nervous system that will need to be in place in order to integrate a steady bombardment of sensory input.
If a newborn experiences being on his belly from the very beginning, he will discover how to engage GRF to mobilize the internal forces that will be needed to guide him from physical helplessness to physical empowerment. This is a natural continuation of the belly-to-belly contact of mothers and babies in the hours and days immediately following birth. Aside from breaks for eating and sleeping, the baby will often become absorbed in being physically active again when placed belly-to-Earth. Some parents are uncomfortable with the fact that their baby appears to be working hard when on his belly. He may emit grunting sounds and even voice frustration. This is work, and he should be given many opportunities to do it. It should be joyful and fulfilling work, though, and he should not be left to cry or be miserable in any position, whether on his belly or his back. There is also the matter of back sleeping recommendations related to SIDS, which will be taken up in detail in a later post).
Assuming a baby is born healthy, as the overwhelming number of babies are, he will be driven by instinct to excel at the task of inhabiting his body according to nature’s design. In the beginning, a newborn embodies a state of pure, open awareness. There is no accumulation of “knowledge” yet, just one fresh all-new moment after another, each experienced through sounds, tastes, smells, sights and touches. One sensation that is largely overlooked is the kinesthetic one, that cellular level, bone-deep experience of being a body. It is this that integrates the passive receiving of stimulation through the senses with an internally-generated response. Touch the “Earth,” and the earth touches us back through a visceral, active exchange in which the baby learns he can participate. The more he practices and becomes familiar with this exchange, the more he can use it to build a wholey functioning organism. He becomes empowered through the act of engaging with his physical design. In little more than a year, he will fulfill his human potential of upright standing up, and in no time at all, he will be running, jumping, hopping, skipping and climbing.
Our job is to marvel and cheer at his miraculous accomplishments, but not to rescue him from having to do the work involved. No one else can do it for him. If a baby balks at being prone, there are ways to encourage him by participating directly with him while he works his way up to getting the hang of it. We should NOT, however, follow the common practice of placing a cushion or rolled-up towel and propping up baby’s chest to make it easier for him. This artificially rotates the rib cage backwards, arching and distorting the natural length of the spine, and subverting the transversus abdominis and other “postural” muscles from developing in a wholly natural way. Keep encouraging him, without bailing him out. Usually, the earlier a baby starts out experiencing stretches of time being prone, the more adept he becomes at enjoying himself there. Newborns often seem to find comfort in this belly-to-earth contact, which is probably why so many of them prefer sleeping in a prone position. It is usually babies who are only placed on their bellies at a later point for an artificially contrived “Tummy Time”,” who balk for not having had the opportunity to develop “belly smarts.”
A healthy baby seems to know just what to do. No one else can do it for him. The more we interfere with this naturally unfolding journey of self-mastery by limiting their opportunities for physical development, the more we impair their ability to develop to their fullest potential. Tragically, for some babies, this translates into having lost the game before it’s even begun.
Like the noisy kitten that blindly tries to make its way through a pile of squirming siblings, always on the move when it is awake, the human baby is fully primed by instinctive biological forces to keep a deep internal ball rolling toward the goal of becoming a fully-functioning, mature and healthy organism.
In the coming posts, we’ll be taking a look at how the current situation developed and what can be done to repair it. Too often today, modern medicine compartmentalizes health into segmented parts of a whole and emphasizes minute molecular details and such things studied through microscopes in laboratories. Not that these things aren’t valuable, but it’s a mistake not to consider the wholeness of a body. We must come to understand the finer details of how healthy development is integrated through movement—not just any movement, but movement that is dictated by a primal connection to the earth. Rather than studying those who are ill or “off-track,” it is the healthiest among us, the ones who are thriving, who point us back to good overall health. This should be the focus of more research. This blog is being born out of a wish that someday soon, research will look into the details of how this body is designed to work efficiently and comfortably. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJwPMK-JALQ
Here’s one simple way this research can be done: Put a good-size group of healthy babies on their bellies for a significant amount of their waking time every day, beginning with the day they are born. Then track their development over the next four years against the rest of the population of babies who spend the great majority of time on their backs or in a semi-reclining position. I’m pretty sure the results will tell us everything we need to know. (If you’re an interested researcher reading this, please call me, okay?) If there’s no difference, well, then we’ll know. To not examine this very real possible cause of some of the problems so many babies are developing is a terrible mistake. It seems that our wholesale misunderstanding of how these human bodies are meant to work has set up a situation where we have lost the connection we’ve had with ourselves as an integrated whole system that is part of an even larger integrated whole system—the Earth. It can sound so woo-woo to say this, but it has become so essential to overall good health, not to mention the future existence of our species, that this must be said—loud and clear!
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