Should I physically assist my infant to encourage their motor development?
In short, no. Similar to avoiding infant orthotic devices, caretakers can best support a developing infant by resisting giving physical assistance to “help” an infant get into a position or perform a movement they cannot yet perform independently. Another term for this is caretaker assisted movements, or CAMs. Like infant orthotic devices (IODs) , caretaker assisted movements (CAMs) are common.
Loving caretakers, eager to see their infants succeed, may think they are being helpful to a by placing developing infants into positions that they are not yet ready to perform, like sitting, crawling, standing, or walking.
However, when we try to “help” them in this way, we may actually be limiting their progression. A caretaker can truly help a developing infant by letting baby lead the way and attain developmental milestones on their own, without artificial physical support from an adult.
Examples of Caretaker Assisted Movements (CAMs)
- Holding a baby by their hands and leading them forward to walk, whether on the floor or going up stairs.
- Placing a baby in a seated position, whether on the floor, propping them up on a couch or chair, propping them up with pillows, or leaning them up in your lap.
- Holding a baby vertically so their feet touch the ground, as if they as standing.
- Placing a baby into a standing position, including leaning them against a couch or low table.
There are several key reasons to avoid CAMs. As with infant orthotic devices (IODs), caretaker assisted movements (CAMs) may prematurely develop an infant’s motor patterns and may delay or alter their future coordination, strength, and mobility.
In addition, CAMs may give baby a false sense of their own capabilities that could embolden them to take movement risks for which they are not yet primed. For example, if we “help” a child walk up stairs before they are ready, they may attempt stairs on their own despite not having all the supporting muscle coordination and mobility to do so safely.
An infant may even seem to enjoy caretaker “help” by smiling or moving in a way that a caretaker could interpret as the infant “wanting” to move in that way. As adults, we may think that this child needs to see the world from our upright perspective. However, infants are better suited for development – and can be just as happy – in a horizontal position. Like skipping a chapter in a book, if we “help” a child perform an activity beyond their skill set, they may miss an important sequence of their developmental story.
Instead, baby-centric engagement
Babies really can do it, all on their own. We, as caretakers, can engage in baby-centric positions and activities to still interact while also encouraging their soft-wired inclinations to move and learn.
Instead of physically intercepting an infant’s movement to urge their achievement of milestones like crawling, sitting, and walking, caretakers would be more helpful to developing infants by engaging in baby-centric activities on the floor. This is a caretaker’s opportunity to celebrate the infant’s journey, being there to cheer them on, but not rush them. Ensuring that they have frequent access to free-range movement on a flat, safe surface is the best place to start. From there, try some of these baby-centric activities to enrich your time together while honoring their process. (reference back to what a child needs)
Examples of baby-centric engagement
- Lay on your back next to babe and hold up a book for you both to look at.
- Get into an all-fours stance above baby to look down on their face to talk, sing, or coo at them.
- If baby is on their belly, imitate their stance on the floor, laying face to face to interact.
- Try sitting on the floor for meals so baby can still have tummy or back time while everyone is eating. If babe is eating solid foods, offer them at this time so baby can participate in mealtime while still benefiting from a spine-neutral position.
These are just a few ideas for baby-centric engagement. The central theme to remember is: Let baby lead. Instead of doing movements for an infant, let them act on their own, reaching milestones big and small when the time is right.
Benefits of this baby-led development approach include:
- Babies will be more at ease in natural positions from early on in development.
- Babies will have the opportunity to develop holistic motor control that will establish their foundation and can build incremental coordination and strength when the time is right.
- Babies will be primed to take next steps only when they are stable enough to do so, thus potentially avoiding movements beyond their capabilities.
If infants can’t do it on their own, we don’t need to “help” them do it. Caretakers can be most helpful to developing infants by avoiding artificially- supported locomotion altogether and adopting a baby-led movement paradigm that is respectful of their biomechanical abilities and limitations. What we must remember is that motor development should be a gradual process. It takes a typical infant 12 to 18 months to be able to walk. 1,2 Be patient! This is an opportunity to see and celebrate the micro-milestones, as well as the big ones, once the child has reached them on their own.
- Krucky, Vaclav. “Chapter 3 – Physiological Developmental Kinesiology.” The Vojta Method of the 2nd Generation, Ostrov, Czech Republic, SVR – Society for Developmental Rehabilitation, 2017, page 41.
- Hermsen-Van Wanrooy, Marianne. Babymoves, Nelson, New Zealand, Baby Moves Publications, 2014.