Newborns of all species begin moving, literally, toward biologically-driven goals from the moment they arrive in this world. Baby kittens, mewing loudly with eyes shut tight, are soon clamoring one on top of the other, pushing their way through a pile of wriggling siblings, in search of the mother cat’s milk. Behaving as if they were born starving, new kittens instinctively root around, attaching themselves to their matrix, with a determination that’s driven by an instinct for survival.
These seemingly random movements are the beginning of a lengthy process of building and developing a complex nervous system that will guide muscle development, movement coordination, and a fully-functioning brain. Charged with a biological mandate to succeed at meeting their full potential as feline creatures, kittens rarely lie still when they are awake, but are continuously on the move.
Mother giraffes give birth standing up, causing the leggy baby to fall several feet to the ground. With its milk supply located high overhead, the baby giraffe must figure out how to stand up on wobbly stick-like legs, in order to be able to begin nursing. In spite of the repeated effort that can be required to accomplish this, there’s no giving up until the baby giraffe is finally able to maneuver within easy reach of life-sustaining nourishment, usually within the first hour of life.
Whales are born swimming. A newborn calf is at once able to move through the water alongside its mother, already exercising powerful torso and tail muscles, acting on instinct, while simultaneously learning how to maneuver in the water by copying what its mother does. The baby whale first nurses very soon after birth, consuming many gallons of rich whale milk, which will soon add up to over a hundred gallons a day in the case of more-grown babies.
Although human babies are the most dependent of all species for the longest amount of time after birth, they, too, are born being able to maneuver their tiny bodies into position to initiate breastfeeding, all on their own. All but forgotten in the modern Western world, this remarkable phenomenon known as the “breast crawl” builds on the already existing bond between mother and baby by establishing a continuum between the womb and the “outside world.” Powered by a strong rooting reflex and a heightened sense of smell, the baby is driven to seek out her mother’s breast and attach herself to it. Possessing just enough strength to mobilize her tiny body, the baby, who has already been practicing certain movements inside watery, cramped quarters, somehow knows just what to do. Pushing off with her feet and legs and wriggling her arms and tiny torso against her mother’s body, she persists until she is able to locate and latch onto her mother’s breast. Provided the mother was not medicated during birth, “breast crawl,” is usually accomplished within the first fifteen to thirty minutes of a baby’s life. “Breast crawl” is being actively promoted by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO)in some developing countries, as a way to promote mother/baby bonding, as well as breastfeeding, because this has been shown to reduce infant deaths by 22% within the first month of life.
It’s a myth that babies are physically helpless for the first several months of their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nature requires that babies begin actively moving, from the earliest moments following birth, and when awake, to engage in almost continuous physical activity in order to accomplish a lengthy list of developmental tasks. Beginning within the first half hour of birth, given the opportunity to lie undisturbed on her mother’s chest, a baby will respond with an instinctive drive to actively participate in its own healthy development. The breast crawl is just one example of how active infants can be.
A newborn is able to accomplish this all on her own, but only when she is placed in a prone position on her mother’s bare body. No one would ever think to place a just-born infant flat on its back on top of the mother, yet most babies today will soon be spending almost every moment on their backs, in a crib or a stroller, a car seat, bouncy seat, motorized swing or some other type of contraption. None of these devices is a problem in and of itself, as long as it is used only occasionally and not in a continuous marathon of the baby being moved from one device to another.
Other factors besides an over-reliance on sitting devices have contributed to babies spending far too much time in a supine (on the back) position, while either awake or asleep, have led to a long list of unfortunate outcomes:
1) A general lack of understanding of the consequences of keeping babies in a supine or semi-supine position prevents many parents from realizing how this disempowers babies physically, preventing them from engaging in movement-driven development of a thriving nervous system. Movement is a fundamental key to a baby’s healthy development, not only for building necessary muscle strength, but because movement, especially belly-to-earth movements, fire off millions of sensory and motor neurons that connect the body with the brain, setting the stage for future successes in motor development, hand-eye coordination, and cognitive learning abilities.
2) A medically-mandated program called the “Back to Sleep Campaign,” instituted in 1992, instructed all parents to keep their babies on their backs at all times when they were sleeping. This was a sincerely, well-intentioned precautionary measure to protect babies from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) that may have created more problems than it solved. To this day there is no evidence that it was back-sleeping per se, and not removal of stuffed animals and puffy bedding from sleeping areas accounted for the fact that the rate of SIDS-related deaths was reduced. It is helpful to keep in mind, that, SIDS is not a diagnosis, but a lack of any diagnosis for something that is unexplainable. At its peak, only .12% or twelve hundredths of one percent babies died of SIDS, meaning that 99.88 % of babies never died of unknown causes. At the same time, it is heartbreakingly true that any parent who has lost a child in such a tragic, unexplainable way, will know that any such death is one too many.
3) Most modern-day adults are disconnected from their own bodies’ natural alignment, (including many of the same health professionals that set policies concerning such things as whether babies need “tummy time” and how often), making it especially challenging for them to understand how to best meet babies’ physical needs;
Why “Belly-to-Earth movements matter so much.
As with all other mammals, humans rely on development of “core” muscles deep within the abdomen and along the spine that function as an internal combustion engine within the body. Nothing is more beneficial to a baby’s neurological development than being held or “worn” facing the mother’s or father’s body. This is the very best kind of “belly to earth” experience for a baby. However, for a variety of reasons related to modern daily living, this ideal situation cannot be met in the lives of many families, and placing the baby in a prone position on a padded surface on the floor is far preferable to endlessly propping the baby up in a bouncy seat or carrier where natural movement is restricted. We’ve taken a wrong turn in trying to protect babies from ever experiencing any frustration, when a reasonable level of frustration (not the crying kind!) appears to be built into the developmental design for motivating babies to literally move to the next level. The bottom line here is that development doesn’t just magically happen on its own if babies are not held often or given other “tummy time” experiences that let them naturally “workout.”
A previous post here includes a simple “belly-to-earth” exercise you can do yourself in order to directly experience ground reaction force the way a baby does. Humans are different from other mammals, of course, but we are all creatures of nature, governed by the same physical laws pertaining to gravity and ground reaction forced. Most, if not all mammals have similar core muscles—especially a transversus abdominis muscle that wraps around the middle of the torso like a corset—that are activated by way of movements involving the the front of the body “meeting” the earth. In the case of humans, the infant is held or “worn” prone (front-facing) the parent’s body, “against” which the baby continuously moves. Dolphins and whales are designed very differently than humans, but even these cetacean sea animals “push” themselves up out of the water by engaging muscles in the torso and the front of a powerful tail “against” the water, which, in this case, serves as a fluid representative of the Earth. The kind of core strength to which we are referring is both natural and powerful, and is a far cry from the superficial, rock-hard, “six-pack” core strength that is glorified by a misguided fitness craze.
Natural internal strength is built upon an ongoing interplay between elastic muscles and aligned bones. As the energetic core becomes ignited by movement, babies, ever so attentive and aware, are likely to experience sensations of connection with the pulse of life itself. After all, they are tuning in to the center of gravity in the body—the dan tien in Chinese martial arts, the hara in Japanese Kendo and Aikido, the grounding physical mana of the Hawaiian, and the enteric or intrinsic nervous system (or “second brain”) in Western medicine. Millions of neurons exist in this “brain in the gut,” many of which are turned on and transmitted through the spinal cord to the brain by way of the belly’s touch with the earth (or whatever surface is serving as the earth’s representative). It’s hard to even imagine other baby animals lying around on their backs for hours on end in their earliest days and weeks of life. There is just too much work to be done in growing a thriving body and nervous system! While humans distinguish themselves in the animal kingdom by becoming fully upright, like all other mammals, we come from and through early belly-to-earth beginnings. Babies benefit in important ways from time spent on their backs, especially in terms of connecting with and communicating with the people who love them, they are set at a disadvantage when they are restricted to being on their backs too much. See more graphic examples and learn more about this here.
Adequate time on the belly, beyond short spurts of “supervised tummy time,” appears to play a key role in many details of healthy development.We have yet to recognize the seriousness of the consequences that result when we prevent babies from doing the important active work they need to be doing. Too often, the result of inadequate time on the stomach is children who have low muscle tone, lack of aligned structural support, plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome) torticollis (wry neck), vision problems and unintegrated and retained reflexes. Among some of the most useful movements that help reintegrate patterns in children and babies with developmental delays, are those, that revisit essential steps, like integrating reflexes and re-patterning of natural movements, that were skipped along the way.
As yet, there is still much to learn about how some of these processes work and what part they play in healthy neurological development. One thing is clear, however—movement is the engine that builds the brain. Nobel Laureate and neurobiologist Roger Sperry said that “90% of the stimulation and nutrition to the brain is generated by the movement of the spine.” It is crucial for the future health of children everywhere that babies be freed from the sitting devices and contraptions in which they spend far too much time, be picked up and held much, much more of the time, and placed on their tummies more often when they are put down. They simply need to be allowed to do what they inherently know how to do—move naturally and freely without constraint or interference.
Click here to view the UNICEF and World Health Organization film that shows a baby engaging in self-attachment or “breast crawl” moments after birth.