I found one of my clients waiting for me, standing up on his mom’s lap as she held his hands. “He only wants to stand now,” she told me. Which would be fine if he were a year old. But this little boy was somewhere between six and eight months old.
Babies often want to be up on their legs. It’s natural; that’s what the big people do, and that is where the action is! And who wants to disappoint a baby? And we have a tendency to think of “precocious” behavior as a good thing.
But developmentally speaking, early standing and walking is not the best thing to encourage in a baby. There are various reasons for this.
First of all, the legs are not yet ready to support the weight of the body in an upright position. Our bodies are ready to walk around the age of one, and we can start standing a couple of months before that. But pushing these activities earlier puts more stress on the structure of the body than it is designed to support. The knees lock, and the legs start to splay out in a bow-legged way. The hips slide around. It can actually change the alignment of the skeletal structure in a way that is hard to re-do later, impacting posture and coordination for life.
Second of all, the system is wired for motor development to progress in a particular order. The infant reflexes emerge, develop, and integrate in a choreographed fashion throughout the prenatal and early years, and they build upon and support one another. Our brain/body development is based upon new movements being “learned” in a certain order, so that each subsequent piece of learning is fully supported.
Walking is quite a feat of engineering! And before we do it, we need the core strength to hold our bodies upright in a balanced way. We have to put a lot of pressure on all parts of the feet, pushing against the ground to move ourselves forward, first on our bellies, and then on our hands and knees. (This is one way we use our Babinski Reflex). We have to support the head and neck and learn to look where we are going. (There are many reflexes for this, including Tonic Labyrinthine, which we see when the back arches and then curls forward, and Landau, which we see when the baby lifts his head and shoulders on his belly so he can look around).
Did you know that crawling is what trains our eyes for integrated binocular vision? We see something we want, and we fix our eyes upon it as we move in a diagonal crawl towards it. As left leg/right arm move forward, then right arm/left leg, our brains are sending signals from one side to the other and back again, helping us integrate our vision with our locomotion. That’s one reason crawling – or lack of it - can affect later academic performance.
We see our babies struggling, and we want to help them. So we push the toy closer, or we pick them up and move them into positions they couldn’t get to on their own. But in “helping” them, we rob them of their education. Because babies are meant to struggle to learn new things – just as we are! It is in finding their way to do the things they need to do that they develop the muscles, the coordination, and the intelligence they need to develop at their highest potential.
When this particular little baby came into my office, he sat on his mother’s lap, playing with a toy, and it took me about twenty minutes of gentle body work to unlock his knees and realign his legs and spine.
We were also singing most of this time – Twinkle, Twinkle, I think – it’s my go-to song because, if there is one song that a mom feels safe singing, Twinkle Twinkle is probably it. Singing helps strengthen the nervous system, wake up the brain and integrate the reflexes.
Then we got down on a blanket on the floor, and I asked the mom to lie down there in front of him, to give him a target to crawl to. I asked her if he could get on hands and knees, and she said that he hadn’t been able to support himself that way yet.
But he was very strong with his arms – pushing up into a little baby cobra (a yoga position that has very clear roots in the infant reflex world!) So I helped his little butt up into the air.
I know I said that we shouldn’t put babies into positions they can’t get into themselves. But sometimes they need a little guidance – especially when we’re helping them into a reflex position that they are the right developmental age to access. The position I helped the baby into is the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex. We see it at about six months old, when babies push up on elbows and knees and rock forward and backwards, preparatory to crawling. They may do that for a month or two before they actually locomote. They’re getting their coordination and strength together for the big effort.
This little baby didn’t get the butt-in-the-air thing, so I let him down again. But a little later, he found the position on his own! It was very exciting.
When his knees were locked from standing and his legs and hips and pelvis were out of alignment, the baby couldn’t access the reflex. He probably hadn’t been physically able to do the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex. So standing too early had been robbing him of the things he could – and needed to – do.
Sometimes babies aren’t happy on the floor, but this baby was, because his mom was there, too, lying down at his level. This is so important. We need to crawl around on the floor with our kids, because they model their activities upon ours. If everything interesting that is happening is happening way up high, of course they’ll want to stand! and walk! and run! before they are actually ready to do it.
Later that day, I got an email from the mom. “I just wanted to say thank you for the amazing appointment today. I notice a huge difference. Tonight I left him sitting on the bed reading a book and when I came back a minute later I found him in crawling position! Thanks again. I'm so happy.”
If your baby has been standing (or in a jumper or any kind of toy that allows him to stand or walk before he is able to unaided) and you want to unlock the knees - or if you just want to do something nice for your baby! here are some techniques you can use:
1. Put your hands gently around the knees. Don’t do any manipulations, just lightly hold them and visualize them going into alignment.
2. Put the baby on his belly, or his back – or best of all, both! grab his feet, and jiggle him. The axis is towards the head, towards the feet. Babies usually love jiggling. If yours doesn’t, stop, of course. Make sure you keep everything “soft,” so there are no hard movements or stresses on the body.
3. Another good jiggling technique is to put the baby on his belly and wiggle his bum side to side. Just exert enough pressure so that it moves on its own, like a bowl of jelly. You barely touch – just enough to get the jiggle going.
4. Play with his feet, putting pressure on the sides, the middle, the heel, the toe. Not too much, of course! But moving the feet in all directions, with pressure, can help to re-align the whole body, and also create strength and stability for crawling – and walking, when the time comes.