Developing Gross Motor Skills Naturally

I’m sure I’m not the only parent of a first-born who keeps a mental list of things I would do differently with my (so far still theoretical) future babies. Near the top of the list is committing more fully to letting those gross motor skills – things like sitting, crawling, and walking – occur naturally and in their own time.

This is actually an idea I heard of relatively early in Tom’s life, when he was about two months old. I discovered a brilliant parenting website by a lady named Janet Lansbury, who is a proponent of the ‘RIE‘ (Resources for Infant Educarers) style of early years care. This approach to raising children follows the principles laid out by Hungarian early years expert, Magda Gerber. At the heart of the RIE approach is respect for the baby/child; all other principles stem from there.

Janet Lansbury’s website was a life saver in those early months. It’s a method of parenting that just really chimed with me. It focuses on trust, respect, and seeing babies as capable little people – dependent but not helpless. I can truly say it revolutionised my growing relationship with Tom, took a lot of stress out of being a parent, and is one of the first steps that I took on this journey to bring up a ‘Wildling’ (there’s a lot of focus on creating safe, outdoor play spaces for young babies)

One of the core principles of the RIE approach is that babies should be allowed to move freely and develop their gross motor skills naturally. This means no tummy time, no propping babies to sit, no using walkers, jumperoos or ‘walking’ babies along, and, wherever possible, encouraging babies/toddlers to climb down from high places by themselves, rather than lifting them down. The argument is that babies who are allowed to navigate these milestones by themselves are more in touch with their bodies and more in tune with their physical motions, making them more graceful and less likely to fall. As a result, it’s actually a safer approach than placing them in situations they can’t get out of themselves. And it is more respectful, as it allows the baby the freedom to move naturally, rather than being dependent on an adult to place them in a particular way. There’s a whole host of articles on Janet’s website, so I recommend starting here with the main principles of RIE, if you are interested in learning more.

I say I would commit more fully to this with future babies. That’s because my adherence to this principle with Tom has been a bit patchy. Before I found out about RIE, Tom spent most of his time either in my arms (feeding) or propped up in a bouncy chair. Once I had read some of the articles, I started laying Tom down on his back on a blanket or fleece on the floor instead. I’d surround him with toys, and was quickly surprised by how much he was able to move, simply by pushing with his feet and creeping (very slowly) about the floor. Later, once he learnt to roll, he could scoot about on his tummy fairly easily.

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I have to confess, once Tom was about five months, we did occasionally sit him up on the floor surrounded by cushions. It was a fairly rare occurrence, but it did happen. This was at least partly because I hadn’t adequately explained the reasoning behind not doing this to Mr Techno – for some reason I thought he wouldn’t support it, which was daft because he did place Tom on his back to play most of the time, even without me explaining why I had started doing that. I also justified it because I knew we would take the ‘baby-led weaning’ approach to weaning Tom, which requires babies to be able to sit up before they start solids. I now realise I could have only sat Tom up in a high chair for meals, rather than on the floor for playtime.

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By 7.5 months, Tom was crawling (arms first, then legs too) and it was logical to carry on letting him play freely on the floor, without restraining him in any way. It was noticeable that, contrary to my mum’s predictions, Tom could get into a crawling position from his tummy. He didn’t need to be sitting up first. In fact, it wasn’t until he was 10 months that he could get into a sitting position by himself and even now he gets onto all fours first, rather than sitting up from a lying down position. For him, that is just the natural way of doing it.

Tom has been in a walker precisely once in his life (at my in-laws, when I wasn’t around). He has pushed his buggy around in the park a bit, or our office chair around the flat, but, in both situations, worked out he could do so himself rather than us encouraging him too. Another confession; we did sometimes (though rarely) let him hold our hands and walk along before he could walk by himself. Usually though he just cruised along the furniture.

Buggy pushing

I’m definitely not saying that any of this has made Tom reach milestones any sooner. It hasn’t. He was an average age crawler and a very slightly late walker. But he has done both these things with great confidence. He’s only been walking about two weeks, but already his nursery key person has commented on his control – apparently toddlers usually struggle to regulate their speed at first. As soon as he could walk, he could stop and stand still, change direction, and bend to pick something up off the floor. He does take the odd tumble, but far less than I expected.

He also meets challenges well. In the park the other day, I watched a two-year-old girl reach a slope and hold out her hand immediately for her grandmother’s hand to be helped to walk down it. Tom reached the same slope, got down on all fours, turned round and went down it backwards, without a single comment or helping hand from me. Because that’s how we taught him to go down stairs.

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Sorry, terrible photo. He was in motion!

Tom has proved to me that this way of letting babies develop is better, safer and more respectful. So if we ever have another child, I’ll be making sure Mr Techno and I are on the same page from day one and let motor control develop naturally.

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Happy Mama Happy Baby

Playing in the Rain

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Well the weather is officially on the turn. It’s getting colder, especially first thing in the morning, and we’ve had a few rainy days.

But this isn’t going to stop us from getting out. Especially now Tom is walking and so is no longer having to crawl his way through wet grass.

I thought I was going to have to look into some barefoot shoes for him (are barefoot wellies a thing? Must check…) but fortunately found a pair of these ‘rain footies’ on eBay. They are essentially plastic bags that attach with some elastic round the ankles. It’ll be a long time before he grows out of them, but he still seems able to walk ok. Waterproof trousers are definitely next on the wishlist.

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We’ve enjoyed pottering around the cat litter box garden, investigating the local wildlife.

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And the play area of the park is completely abandoned when it’s wet, giving Tom a chance to play without getting trampled by bigger kids.

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All in all, wet weather is no reason to stay inside. We love playing in the rain!

Monkey and Mouse

 

Why Do We Bother?

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I think by now most people know the benefits of getting our kids playing outside. All those great things about tackling obesity, supporting mental health, and developing a love of nature that (hopefully) will lead to more environmentally conscious future adults.

All those things are great. They are worth making time for. And they all have an influence on my decision to make this pledge to get out with Tom every day. But they aren’t the whole reason, or even the most important reason.

The most important reason I make such an effort to spend time with Tom outside? It’s very simple. It makes me happy. And it seems to make Tom happy too.

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Although this blog may feature Weekly Reports and refer to the pledge I made as a challenge, at the end of the day, I don’t do any of these things to tick some ‘worthy parent’ box or because I feel like I have to do them to bring up Tom ‘properly’. I do them because, even on the days when I don’t initially want to leave the house, I have a great time.

What better reason is there to get outdoors?

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Also, look! He can walk!!

Barefoot Babies

The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source: http://www.uchicago.edu/features/anthropologist_explores_humanitys_first_steps/
The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source: http://www.uchicago.edu/features/anthropologist_explores_humanitys_first_steps/

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Tom is not yet walking. Really, this is a bit unfair on him. In fact, he took a few steps for the first time on his first birthday, and since then is growing in confidence, staggering between Mr Techno and I with his arms outstretched, giggling madly. He can stand pretty well by himself now, and has even begun to walk across (small) distances between items of furniture. In the park, he’ll happily push his buggy around, but it less keen to risk the wide open spaces.

Buggy pushing

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It’s great watching him gradually master this new skill, which will open a whole world to him. The appearance of the ability to walk well on two legs (bipedalism) is a key moment in human evolution. If you can walk on two legs, you have hands free to carry tools and food. If you can use tools, you can hunt, and carry greater amounts of food to a home base. With access to more highly nutritious foods (such as meat or sugary fruits), you can support greater brain function, leading to a growth in brain size (known as encephalisation). With greater thinking power, you can…well sit at a computer writing a blog (hurray!)

Okay, I may be simplifying a little bit. Causes for the appearance of evolutionary traits are rarely quite this straightforward. What is clear though is that bipedalism is the earliest ‘human’ trait to appear in the archaeological record, with fossils from as early as 3.7 million years ago already showing clear anatomical adaptations for bipedal walking. Key amongst these changes is the anatomy of the feet, including a higher arch, and changes in the position of the big toe, which tucks in close to the others, rather than being spread out to assist with balancing on branches*.

That anatomy is pretty unique. And pretty easy to damage through inappropriate footwear. Mine, for example, have sexy bunions developing on the big toe joints. After a waitressing stint as a student, I also have no feeling in one side of each big toe. Cheap, ill-fitting shoes are to blame for both. You can bet our ancestors weren’t jamming their feet into a pair of high heels (or £5 ballet pumps either). Shoes don’t survive well in the archaeological record being made from soft, organic matter that decays quickly, but the earliest foot coverings are likely to have been no more than strips of hide. Very flexible, though not very durable.

Babies’ and toddlers’ feet are even more vulnerable than adults to damage from inflexible footwear. Unlike adults, babies don’t have defined hard bones in their feet. Instead, their feet are made up of a soft bone almost like cartilage. This is very pliable, so very sensitive to distortion if confined in an inflexible shoe. The bones develop as they grow and begin to walk, but their feet will carry on developing into their mid-teens**.

Experts also believe that toddlers (and adults) walk better barefoot. It gives a better sense of balance, encourages better posture, and helps to strengthen muscles and joints. Tom has never worn shoes. In summer, he went completely barefoot. Now that the temperature has dropped, he wears socks. Sometimes, if it is especially cold outside, I’ll add a pair of soft knitted bootees (made by my lovely mother-in-law) over the top of the socks. I plan to keep it that way for as long as I can. But English weather being what it is, and with the irritating tendency of our green spaces to sprout unexpected broken glass or dog poo, I can see that a time will come when we will need an ‘emergency’ pair of footwear for use in cold weather or on sharp terrain. I’m putting off doing any research until he’s walking properly, but when the day comes I think I’ll be shelling out for a pair of those specially designed ‘barefoot’ shoes. Just to keep my little Wildling’s feet developing as naturally as possible, as long as possible.

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*I have references for this if anyone is interested, but thought academic journals might be a bit heavy for a post on babies’ shoes!

**Some good info on this is available from the website of East London podiatrist Tracy Byrne: http://www.tracybyrne.co.uk/children.html