It may seem like your baby is spending a lot of time in bed, but she’s actually getting vigorous exercise every day. Whether she’s hitting a ball, kicking her legs, or wriggling around during diaper changes, she’s exercising her little muscles. All of this strength building is essential to the development of her motor skills: she needs strong muscles to support her head, roll over, sit up, crawl and eventually walk. In addition, physical activity leads to more peaceful sleep, less irritability, and a happy baby eager to play and learn, says San Antonio pediatrician Meena Chintapalli, M.D. These simple exercises will help you become your baby’s own personal trainer.
Your baby spends most of his time lying on his back. Turning him over on his tummy helps exercise the muscles in his neck, arms, shoulders, back and stomach, says Robert Pantel, M.D., author of the book “Caring for Your Child. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, daily supervised time on the floor can begin the first day he comes home from the hospital. Start with three to five minutes. Lie on your own tummy to keep your baby company while you place him on a blanket or play mat on the floor. Smile, talk, sing, make faces, shake a set of keys, or put a toy in his hand. Engaging your baby makes him want to look around, reach out and kick his legs, which helps build the muscles he needs to roll over, sit up and eventually crawl, Dr. Pantel says. At first, he may fuss at tummy time, but with practice and stronger muscles, he should start to enjoy it. As he gains strength and endurance, gradually work on his abdominal exercises for at least 20 minutes a day. Continue even if he is able to roll over on his own.
Pulling your baby into a sitting position is another great way to strengthen her shoulders, core, arms and back muscles, says Steve Sanders, author of the book “Encouraging Physical Activity in Babies. Even when you’re doing this, your baby will naturally contract her abdominal muscles to keep her head in line with her body, which helps strengthen muscles and build balance. When your baby is lying on her back, grab her forearms and gently pull her toward you. You can start doing sit-up exercises at about 6 weeks; if she’s too small to support her head, instead of pulling on her forearms, place your hands behind her shoulders and put your hands behind her head to keep her head from tilting back. Dr. Sanders says you may only be able to pull your baby up an inch or two at first, but as she gets older, she will go farther and eventually into a full sitting position. This exercise is fun for your baby as she gets closer to your face, but you can make it even more fun by giving her a kiss at the top of each sit-up.
Did your mom ever tell you to cycle your baby’s legs to help with farting? Not only is this a natural way to fart, but it’s also a great way to exercise the legs, hips, knees and abs. This movement helps increase flexibility as well as his range of motion. “Put your baby on his back and gently move his legs up and down as if he were pedaling a bicycle,” says Dr. Chintapalli. Coo, smile, sing, or make chirping or whining sounds as you do so. Repeat the action three to five times, take a break, and then repeat. Stick with it as long as your baby shows interest, such as smiling, making eye contact and kicking.
Picking up objects is a great way to build your baby’s grip, improve hand-eye coordination and develop shoulder, arm and hand muscles, says Angela Sackell, regional director of Little Gym, a national chain of children’s fitness centers. Once she starts grasping objects, usually around 3 to 4 months, use things from your home ー rattles, small toys and other items of different sizes and shapes ー as her personal weights. Have your baby sit in her high chair or bouncy chair and place these items in front of her. Encourage her to lift one, check it, put it down, and then lift it again, or change it. You may need to demonstrate how to do this the first few times, but she will soon understand, especially if her “weights” make a sound, light a light, or offer some other reward for a job well done.