When you walk through a baby retailer there are endless aisles of baby toys, carriers and equipment. Choosing the right items is important to promote your baby’s development. Hands down, the best place for your child to learn and explore is on the floor. I encourage families to dedicate a “safe space” for your little one to learn to wiggle, kick, roll, crawl and creep. This area needs to be soft enough to protect them when they fall but also firm enough to provide resistance against their moving bodies. A couch or bed is too padded and doesn’t provide enough resistance to your developing baby as they push and kick against it. I prefer a carpeted area with a large blanket or a mat, safe from cords, pets, and any items that could injure them. There’s no question that using baby equipment (exersaucers, jumpers and walkers) keeps your baby happy…but it also keeps them confined and prevents them from exploring their body and their environment. Several non-preferred patterns of movement and habits emerge in children who spend lengthy amounts of time in these container-toys. They actually have the ability to hinder natural development as opposed to promote it. I’ve included a few of the main reasons most therapists as well as myself say “nay” to these types of baby equipment:
Poor posturing. When babies are placed in exersaucers, they have a tendency to shift into a position that tips their head back too far, their shoulders up too high, their shoulder blades pulled too far back, their hips pulled too far apart by a stiff piece of fabric, and their back too arched as their belly sways forward. None of these postures are natural or optimal for development.
Poor standing position. Exersaucers encourage babies to stand by locking out their knees in order to compensate for weakness because they’re placed in a standing position way before they are developmentally ready for weight bearing. They also cause babies to bear weight on their toes instead of on their whole foot, which is known to contribute to the over-development of calf muscles and, if severe, can lead to toe walking.
Poor sense of balance control. Babies who spend time in exersaucers end up in a position where their center of gravity remains forward, thus interfering with their development of balance. Our bodies develop a sense of balance through the feedback given to us by receptors in our muscles and joints (called proprioceptors). When we lose our balance, these receptors send a message to our brain (which goes back to our body), telling us to adjust our position in order to avoid falling. This message is non-existent when placed in an exersaucer. Babies also have difficulty developing a sense of balance control while in exersaucers because they can’t see their feet, which is something they need to be able to do when learning how to stand and balance independently. Additionally, babies are safe in these type of toys therefore there is no need to be accountable for their balance and their movements. They can wiggle all around, bobbling their heads, swinging their legs and bouncing up and down without any consequences. When you attempt to transition your baby to floor/tummy time they’re unsuccessful and easily frustrated because these “safe” movements they’ve learned in an exersaucers are suddenly no longer “safe” or successful on the floor.
Decreased exploration of the environment. Active exploration of the environment allows babies to develop their cognitive and motor skills, especially when trying to obtain objects out of their reach. This encourages rolling, scooting, crawling, and pulling to stand. Although exersaucers include many toys providing sensory stimulation and opportunities for problem solving, all toys are set right in front of them, thus depriving them of opportunities to challenge their gross motor development in order to explore their environment.
As a pediatric physical therapist, I’ll often meet children who are delayed developmentally. There is often no known cause and nothing medically wrong except they aren’t meeting their gross motor milestones. They’ll usually love to sit, but rarely roll or crawl and are unable to transition into and out of positions on the floor. During the first session of physical therapy, I explain the importance of tummy time, floor time and avoiding these types of container toys. They are likely contributing to the child’s delay in development. As families remove them from use and begin physical therapy, the child’s gross motor developmental milestones quickly begin to emerge. Try removing them from your home, replace them with floor time in a safe space and watch your baby learn, explore and grow!