Why Standing your Baby may contribute to their difficulty in Tummy Time
“My Baby Hates Tummy-Time…But Loves to Stand”
Does your baby hate tummy-time but love to stand up? This is a common combination and there is a reason for them to appear together. Many parents, eager to notice what makes their baby happy and to follow their baby’s lead, fall into the habit of standing up very young babies. This may seem fine, as babies often seem to really enjoy the position. However, standing your baby before he can coordinate bringing himself to the position can result in practicing a lot of unnecessary stiffness and holding in the body. For many babies standing along with other factors can add up to difficulty in tummy-time and other movements that are important developmentally.
Why it’s too early
When you stand your baby up before she can do it herself, she is in a constant state of catching herself from falling. Because she hasn’t developed enough balance yet, and doesn’t know how to use her legs and feet for support, her body leans forward, back, and to the side. With each lean away from her center of gravity she tenses her muscles to stop from falling, and often with too much muscle tone.
But isn’t your baby getting stronger? Well his muscles may get larger as a result, but it isn’t an ideal way to do it. An important part of strength is using muscles with coordinated effort – distributing the work through the body in a way that is efficient. What often gets practiced when a baby is stood very early, is the opposite of efficient coordinated effort. As the baby in this photo is stood up, he relies on the muscles in front (flexors) and back (extensors) to create the stability he needs, his shoulders shrug and arms stiffen, he knees may lock or grip his toes reflexively as well. As a result, he practices contracting many muscle groups together inefficiently to create the necessary stability to feel safe. Not only does he practice too much muscle tone, but inefficient combinations of muscle groups are used which work at cross purposes. In short, he ends up contracting many muscles at the same time to stabilize himself and if he brings that same pattern of contraction to tummy time and other positions he will feel that it is difficult to be comfortable or to move the way he’d like.
When your baby is on her tummy, if she keeps her muscles contracted in a similar state to standing, she will be very uncomfortable. She may not be able to lift her head at all, or she may not even be able to feel at rest on her tummy and instead may hold herself in a position where she is fighting gravity from the moment she touches down. To give one example, here is a baby exploring how to coordinate his body for lifting the head in tummy-time.
The extensors of the back contract enough to help lift the head, while the flexors, generally stay soft and lengthen. Not only that, but any time he feels that he is exerting himself too much, he can rest his head on the floor. Also notice just how much of his body he leans on to support himself – a very large base of support compared to two little feet! Do you see how different this is than the pattern the baby practices when standing up? In other movements different combinations of muscle groups fire, but in each one, there is quite a different pattern than the strong stabilizing pattern elicited when standing your baby up.
But My Baby Loves to Stand!
Yes, it appears that your baby loves standing. My colleague Barbara Leverone likes to re-frame this statement as, “My baby loves to see me and and he loves to push with his legs.” The good news is you can give your baby what he loves in a way that is more developmentally appropriate than standing. When he lies on his back, allow him to push on your legs or arms or the floor at the baby in this picture does, and use his legs to move his well-supported body. Coo and chat with him while you do it. He will love the feeling, and he gets to see you too. The difference will be that he doesn’t have to stabilize his head in gravity without a chance to rest down to the floor whenever he needs. And that change may make a big difference in your baby’s development.