I am quite sure that there is no one single easy answer to this question, but one very often overlooked vehicle is through movement. In this article I will explore the connection/contribution between movement and a healthy brain through the lifespan.
“Movement is the language of the brain”- Anat Baniel
Anat Baniel is one of my teachers. This comment has had a profound influence on how I think about my work and on newer directions I am taking it.
INFANTS AND BABIES
A key way infants develop their brains is through movement. Very young babies do all sorts of random movements. When one of those achieves a desired outcome it is repeated and becomes a learned skill. Early sensory/motor development sets the stage not only for good motor skills, but also for academic, social and emotional success.
So what can we as adults do to support optimal infant development and brain health?
– Lots of time on the floor ideally with an engaged, attentive adult who while staying present, does not help the child into positions they cannot get to on their own-
This quickly brings up the issue of “tummy time” purported to be essential to the development of back and shoulder girdle strength. My view is that with enough opportunity for exploratory movement babies learn to roll over onto their tummies and will typically prop on elbows gaining the strength they need. If you want to encourage a baby to roll and they are close you can use a toy. Here is a lovely little video that illustrates this. It’s pretty cute too! Notice that when she pushes on her foot she is also engaging her back muscles. Placing babies on their tummies before they are ready can actual hinder optimal development.
– Limit use of exersaucers and jolly jump up type devices as they do put little ones in positions they cannot get into on their own and also limit true exploratory movement.
Many babies really like these devices because they can see the world and are in new positions. Then they protest being on the floor. I like to make an analogy between exersaucers and sugar – would you feed baby a heavy diet of sugar just because they prefer it to more healthy options?
A key concept to remember is that developmental sequence is far more important than developmental milestones. For example, an early walker who never crawled will be more likely to have learning challenges later on than one who walked later but first army crawled and then hands and knees crawled. Back last January I took a course with Beverly Stokes called Amazing Babies Moving. She made the following comment that has really stuck with me.
Children who had more varied and quality movement at 14 months had better grades at 14 years.
The first year of life is when most of the neonatal reflexes should be integrated. The guidelines above help assure that this will happen. When they are not fully integrated challenges in not only physical, but also emotional, academic and social are common.
When thinking of movement and brain health in children there are 3 important aspects to keep in mind – general fitness, vestibular function (balance and orientation in the external world), and proprioception (felt sense of our own bodies without visual feedback). In children with challenges incomplete integration of neonatal reflexes should also be considered.
John Ratey MD in this book Spark discusses a study showing that ordinary fitness training in school improved grades. BDNF is a factor that promotes brain connections. Aerobic activity increases the production of this factor.
During the winter children at a Waldorf school go ice-skating weekly. The reason, ice-skating is particularly helpful in developing vestibular and proprioceptive functions. Any kind of rough and tumble play is good. Hanging upside down helps develop an innate sense of up and down that is critical to reading and writing. More complex activities that combine physical activity and thinking/planning are of great benefit. Examples include yoga, dance, rock climbing and martial arts as well as many team sports.
If a child is struggling in some way and is already doing the above or resistant to that type of activity there is a reasonable possibility that she has not fully integrated her neonatal reflexes.
Here are some signs to look for …
Issues with age appropriate gross or fine motor activities
Easily startled and sensitive to or easily distracted by such things as light or sound or certain types of clothing
Difficulty with focus and sitting appropriate posture especially at school
The more of these that occur together the more likely reflex issues are present. The good news that with the appropriate combination of gentle hands on work and playful neurodevelopmental movement these problems can be solved.
I offer $25 introductory screening for reflex integration and overall motor development to see if this would be helpful. Please call or email (see contact page) to schedule.