Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful and talented therapists. Within the last couple, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with one of those therapists, Julie Hassler Wattenberg. Julie is an amazing physical therapist who is compassionate about her job, the children she works with and her own family. I was thrilled that she said yes to write a guest post for my readers as she has her own site and posts too at www.babiesfirstfitness.com. Any who… Here is Julie!
Ok, really, I am not a fan of sensational titles, but I couldn’t resist this one! I have three adorable kids . . . I am a loving and devoted mom . . . of course I hold their hands! However, as a pediatric physical therapist, I have a lot of other kids that I love and work with on a weekly basis. Despite the love, I do not hold their hands when we are working on skills that build their coordination and balance and I encourage parents to do the same . . . and there is a simple reason why.
The Reason: When you allow your child to hold your hand when they are learning a skill that requires balance, you are allowing them to use a pulling or extension pattern to stabilize their trunk instead of a pushing or flexion pattern. When the child pulls on the parent’s hand, they engage extensor muscles, the muscles on the back of their body. When a child learns to balance effectively, they should use a balance of flexion and extension. Holding hands during balance activities will cause the child to learn that the first available motor plan when they start to lose balance is extension and they will pull their arms back when they start to fall. This makes falling very dangerous for a child, as they do not use their flexors effectively and therefore to not catch themselves with their arms.
Ok, maybe the reason isn’t really simple . . . here are some examples.
As a pediatric physical therapist, I am responsible for improving a child’s balance and coordination. I am also responsible for helping children learn to move independently. Moving independently means that a child must learn that they do not require anyone to physically move them. Think of a child who is at an age where they are learning to crawl. At the same time a child is learning to crawl, the child is struggling with their own difficulties whether they are going to move independently away from mom and dad. Imagine a parent who states to me, my child only wants to walk, she is going to skip crawling so we just walk her around holding her hands. Believe me, I hear this all the time! This parent is not really doing the child any favors by moving him or her through space in this manner. The parent is telling the child “you NEED me to move” and “you cannot move on your own” because the child is learning that they can only move through space if a parent is with them. Furthermore, the parent is teaching the child ineffective postural control strategies when they are walking. The parent is reinforcing the extension pattern of stabilization for the child. This is an ineffective postural control mechanism and the parent is teaching their child to walk using their extensors only instead of the preferred balance of flexion and extension.
Now imagine a child whose parent understands the importance of their child learning to crawl. The parent gives the child plenty of tummy time, using the TBS rule (click here for blog post What is a Baby Container and Why Is It Bad?). The parent realizes the importance of continuing tummy time even after their child learns to sit (click here for blog post Moving Beyond Sitting, Strategies to Progress Your Baby to Independent Transitions). The parent encourages their child to move away from them in a gentle and supportive way by being near the child and providing supportive toys that the child is encouraged to move towards, independently without help from a parent. Eventually, the child learns to roll, belly crawl, push to hands and knees and crawl on hands and knees . . . away from mom and dad. This lovely progression is important from a cognitive standpoint, as the child has learned from their parent who provided support and encouragement, that they do not need mom and dad, for the first time, to move. The child is also learning to move by pushing through the surface, pushing through the surface engages the core muscles in balance, meaning the flexors and extensors of the trunk are learning to work in balance. This is always the goal. This allows your child to learn effective postural control strategies.
Here’s another example. Imagine a parent brings his child to therapy every week for the last three years. The child is just learning to walk. The parent is excited, but when the family is out in a safe environment, the well-intentioned parent is always holding the child’s hand. When the child starts to lose his balance, he pulls on dad’s arm to stabilize himself using extension pattern to stabilize his trunk. This is teaching the child an ineffective balance strategy. It will actually inhibit the child from learning to fall forward and protect himself with his arms. The hand holding is reinforcing extension pattern when the child loses balance instead of flexion, therefore the first available pattern the child learns when the child is falling is extension making it dangerous for the child to fall, as he will be more prone to hit his head when he falls due to the ineffective balance strategy. A better strategy would be to allow the child to walk independently in safe environments and allow him to fall. Falling is a very important part of learning to walk and learning to catch yourself with strong flexion is essential to being a safe walker.
Here are some simple swaps to help your child learn to move more effectively by using the proper muscles in balance:
- DON’T hold your child’s hands overhead when they are learning to walk. DO encourage your child to push items in the house such as diaper boxes and other stable surfaces. (click here for blog post Toddler Time: The Power of Pushing)
- DON”T allow your child to hold your hand when they are doing a difficult balance activity and you are encouraging balance. DO hold gently hold your child’s wrist and try to hold your child’s hand in front of him instead of up or to the side. This reinforces a balance of flexion and extension and you are only giving your child balance when they need it versus your child constantly pulling on you for balance and learning ineffective strategies.
- DON’T hold your child’s hand all the time when walking. DO allow your child to fall in safe environments and allow your child to learn the essential strategies necessary to be safe when falling.
- DON’T hold both hands as your child is going up the stairs. DO encourage your child to push against the wall as they are going up the stairs and if needed you can hold the wrist of the opposite hand.
- DON’T hold your child’s hands when they are climbing at the park. DO encourage your child to hold onto the handles on the stairs and the rungs on the ladder, and the sides of the slide (yes I do let my kids climb up the slide) when they are climbing (click here to see video on climbing).
It is my goal at www.babiesfirstfitness.com to provide ALL parents with ideas on how they can exercise their children. I feel that parents who have children in therapy are at an advantage in a way, because they learn strategies to exercise their babies and children all the time. I want these ideas to become available to all parents. Check out www.babiesfirstfitneess.com for more information on ideas to help you exercise your babies, toddlers and children.
Now, hold your children close, snuggle them, hold their hands if you want to feel their sweet little hand, but be sure that you allow your child to learn how to move independently away from you with effective balance strategies . . . because ultimately as much as we don’t want it . . . it is the goal to have our children eventually move away from us (as a tear rolls down my cheek).