It may seem like your baby spends a lot of time lying around, but she actually gets in a vigorous workout every day. Whether she’s batting at an object, kicking her legs or squirming during a diaper change, she’s exercising her little muscles. And all that strength-building is essential to her motor development: she’ll need strong muscles to hold up her head, roll over, sit up, crawl and eventually walk.
In addition, physical activity pays off in the form of more restful sleep, less fussiness and a happy infant who is eager to play and learn, says Meena Chintapalli, M.D., a pediatrician in Texas. These easy exercises will help you become your baby’s own personal trainer.
Try tummy time.
Your infant spends the majority of his time on his back. Turning him over onto his stomach helps build the muscles in his neck, arms, shoulders, back and stomach, says Robert Pantell, M.D., co-author of Taking Care of Your Child. Daily supervised tummy time can begin as early as his first day home from the hospital, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Start with a couple of three- to five-minute sessions. After you place your baby tummy-down on a blanket or play mat on the floor, get down on your own stomach to keep him company. Smile, talk, sing, make funny faces, jiggle a set of keys or put a toy within his grasp. Engaging your baby makes him want to look around, reach and kick, which is what helps build the muscles he’ll need to roll over, sit up and eventually crawl, says Pantell.
At first, he may fuss during tummy time, but with practice and stronger muscles, he should begin to enjoy it. As his strength and tolerance increases, gradually work up to at least 20 minutes of tummy play each day. Continue even after he’s able to roll over on his own.
Gently pulling your baby up into a sitting position is another good way to strengthen the muscles in her shoulders, core, arms and back, says Steve Sanders, Ed.D., author of Encouraging Physical Activity in Infants. Even though you’re doing the pulling, your baby will naturally flex her abdominal muscles and work to keep her head in alignment with her body, which helps strengthen the muscles and build balance.
While your baby is on her back, grasp her forearms and gently pull her toward you. You can start doing sit-up exercises around 6 weeks; if she’s too young to support her head, place your arms behind her shoulders with your hands behind her head to keep it from flopping back. You may only be able to pull your baby up an inch or two at first, Sanders says, but as your infant gets older she’ll go farther, eventually advancing into a full sitting
This exercise is fun for your baby since she’s getting closer to your face, but you can make it even more entertaining by being extra animated and giving her a kiss at the top of each sit-up.
Pedal that “bicycle.”
Did anyone ever tell you to cycle your baby’s legs to help relieve gas? Well, it’s not only a natural method for pushing air out of his system, it’s also a good way to work his legs, hips, knees and abs. This move helps increase flexibility and range of motion. “Put your baby on his back and gently move his legs up and around, as if he were pedaling a bicycle,” says Chintapalli. Coo, smile, sing or make silly noises while you do the motion. Repeat the movement three to five times, take a break and then repeat. Keep going as long as your baby shows interest by smiling, making eye contact and kicking.
Lift some weight.
As soon as your little one starts grasping at items (usually around 3 or 4 months), use what you have around the house—rattles, small toys and other objects of varying sizes and shapes—as her personal weights. This will help her develop hand-eye coordination and boost her strength.
Sit your baby in her high chair or bouncy seat and place a small assortment of items in front of her. Encourage her to lift one, check it out, put it down and then lift it again or move on to a different one. You may have to demonstrate how it’s done the first few times, but she’ll get the idea quickly, especially if her “weights” make a sound, light up or offer some other reward for a job well done.
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