Even today, my kids still need some of those same strategies I used when they were babies to help them self-regulate and to support development, and guess what? So do yours. Today, I'll tell you how with 7 examples that are as easy as they come and won't cost a dime. Much gratitude to Inspired Treehouse for the invitation to write this post as a part of their Happy New Year, Healthy Kids series!
Remember your baby swing? How about a baby carrier of some kind? Oh, and what about those collections of muslin blankets with things like polka dots or bumble bees printed all over? I do. Quite well, actually, because I spent the majority of my days as a new mom learning which of these things calmed each of my daughters and how.
My kids preferred so much movement as babies that I remember catching myself standing in a grocery store line, bouncing and swaying away as if I had a baby in my arms. What I was actually holding was my purse! Face palm! I was used to giving my babies LOTS of movement (and also, my brain doesn't work very well without sleep).
I took good notes on my babes: both girls loved to be pressed up against me in a carrier. They both giggled when I tossed them gently into the air and caught them with a slow dip. One liked to be bounced. The other only wanted to be swayed or rocked. One spent half of her second year upside down any way she could manage it, and the other loved to roll, flip and roughhouse with an intensity that always outlived my endurance.
Some of their preferences changed. Most of them stayed pretty constant. I often accessed these movements and sensory preferences as tools that worked like a salve for emotional distress or as a boost to play-time amusement.
And then, in what feels like a blink of an eye and a lifetime all in the same sharp breath, they grew into school children that hardly seem to resemble the babes they once were. Sigh.
My girls are now in elementary school and the focus there is weighted heavy on the sedentary cognitive tasks. It’s pretty light on physical activity in comparison to their rather movement-rich early years.
That’s too bad, really, because recent neuroscience is demonstrates the more we engage in physical activity, the better our brains function and we can better cope with emotional distress.
Our nervous systems have not evolved to support the unprecedented sedentary education we have developed for our next generation, and we would all do better by our children teach them how to move mindfully while learning instead of instructing them to sit still.
School aged children can benefit mentally, emotionally and physically from many of the tools and movements parents used to support their self-regulation when they were only babies. You don’t have to have a Ph.D to use this movement approach, and none of these strategies should cost you a thing! It's so simple, it's hard to believe how helpful it is, but I double dog dare you to try. You will be amazed at the almost immediate outcome.
Here are 7 things we did for our babies that our school aged children still need for self-regulation and brain development:
Note: not all children will be fond of all of these movements. This is merely an array of possible suggestions, though not an all-encompassing one. Find a few that work for your child, and maybe add a few that aren't listed here. Know that each child has different preferences due to individual sensory development and those preferences may change as the brain seeks out varying physical input as it grows and changes.
1. The Swaddle: Just kidding. Don’t swaddle your 6 year old, but if your babe loved to be swaddled, it’s an indication your child’s nervous system is soothed by deep, evenly dispersed pressure.
You might try offering your child some age appropriate alternatives to the swaddle. Examples include strong hugs from behind the child, making your child into a “sandwich” pressed (gently) between couch cushions, or tucking your child tightly into a blanket at night. If you want to invest in a tool to support this preference, I highly recommend stretchy lycra “body socks” for playing or weighted blankets to give a little deep pressure with sleep.
2. Rocking, swinging or swaying often: Sit in a recliner with a rocking component, sway in a hammock or swing in a swing. Most kids will prefer one of these over the other and some may even love rocking but dislike swinging. To each his own, but nary a day goes by that I don’t see a line for the swings at the park. That’s because for many kids, swinging produces feel-good neurotransmitters that can help regulate emotions and can assist with better attention for school work.
3. Bouncing: bouncing offers compression to the joints, which supports posture (proprioceptive system) as well as stimulation for the vestibular system (balance system of the body). Some kids love sitting on exercise balls and bouncing gently, some love the high bounces from a trampoline.
If you see your kid bouncing off the walls, jumping on couches or needing to spring off of things, consider allowing him to sit on a bouncy ball in lieu of a chair at school or bounce on a mini-trampoline before homework to satiate the brain’s obvious need for joint compression and movement in space.
4. Encouraged rolling and crawling: My poor kids are so confused because my husband is always telling my kids to get off the floor (in the community), and I’m always telling them to roll around on it (at home). This is the trouble with having a movement advocate for a mother, I suppose.
Back to my case in point: rolling and crawling. Your child needs more of it. It can help physical skills integrate and develop, which affects overall growth and brain function. It also strengthens the core, challenges coordination and allows weight bearing into the arms. Said weight bearing will help strengthen the shoulder girdle, which is important because and you need a strong shoulder girdle for good fine motor skills ("the hand bone’s connected to the arm bone, the arm bone’s connected to the shoulder bone…").
Examples of rolling and crawling-type activities for kids might include yoga, creating an obstacle course, crawling through tunnels at playgrounds, Parkour, wrestling, roughhousing or even rolling down hills like we all did back in the day.
5. Tipping the head upside down: Warning, there are some kids that will prefer to only go upside down when leaning forward, and do not like to be tipped backward. That’s cool. Please honor that. Otherwise, many kids enjoy being turned on their heads, and it’s good for the sensory system’s development. Often, inversions change perspective and can shift the mood for the better. Teach your kids how to do the yoga pose, down dog. Show them how to hang upside down from a playground bar or trapeze. Give them lots of opportunity to turn their frowns upside down, which is exactly what it does for my 5-year-old.
6. Massage: As a new mama, I remember reading multiple articles on how to massage a baby with natural oils and lotions and such. “It is so good for both parent and baby,” the experts said. Plus, all the research backed it up, so I snagged a little olive oil from the pantry and lathered my babies up.
Once they started crawling, they were too wiggly to hold still for anything so I forgot about it for a while until my youngest daughter started to have trouble getting to sleep at night. At that point, I invested in some lovely smelling lavender oil and lubed up her legs and arms every night until she figured out how to get to sleep on her own again. Turns out, that was a win-win deal because the smoothness of the oil combined with the physical effort I put forth to massage her extremities ended up being a calming outlet for my own frustration towards what felt like the s-l-o-w-e-s-t bedtime routine ever. Know what I mean? Support yourself, too, parents!
As with everything else I’m offering here, research backs up the benefits of massage. The physical touch from parent to child actually helps link up neural circuits in the brain and increases emotional bonding even though the work is all physical. Additionally, the physical touch creates better body mapping in the child’s brain, which improves body awareness so a child has a better understanding of where he or she is when moving through the world.
Now, I’m not suggesting you give your child a spa treatment every day, but something as simple as a few minutes’ worth of hand massage or a head massage during the bedtime ritual can really go a long way in soothing a child and it can do some behind-the-scenes brain development in the process. I tell ya, the best part of that whole deal was when my daughter started to not only offer me a hand massage, but then fall asleep on her own!
7. The Outdoors. My very fatigued, new-mama brain was devastatingly terrible at problem solving amid sleep deprivation and a fussy babe. However, it would sometimes throw me a line and recall my mother’s brilliant advice: "when in doubt, take her out!" So I’d just step out on the back porch and be amazed at how it would almost always change my daughter’s mood. It seemed to settle her in ways nothing else would.
There’s research that shows that treatment for ADHD such as outdoor work or wilderness instruction can be beneficial to treating the symptoms, and this benefit is not lost on the typically developing child. We still need to take our children outside. The natural light, a bird singing or even just a romp around the block can support brain development in ways that neuroscience has only just begun to articulate.
You don’t have to stop learning your child’s preferences once they start walking and talking. You may need to pass the muslin swaddle blankets on to the next new parent, but don't ditch the concept of swaddling and deep pressure to the body!
Even if they have good language abilities, many kids can’t recognize or articulate what they need for good self-regulation (yet). They need you to point it out for them and teach them how to use their movement tools to improve their everyday functions. Notice what they intuitively do (bounce, crash, go upside down, etc) and offer them more opportunities to get more of the same. Trust me; you will be amazed by the outcome!
I'm honored that this post is a part of Inspired Treehouse's Happy New Year, Healthy Kids series. Please check out their page for other helpful (FREE) blog posts!
As always, I'm so grateful to be connected to you here. Thank you for your time on this blog and for your investment in the next generation of children!
Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
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