I heard you speak at a conference recently. If I understood you correctly, you believe that infants from a very early age are very active, move a lot, and do not need to be exercised. How do you feel about special classes for babies, such as “Baby Swim”, “Baby Dance”, “Baby Gym”, and “Baby Dynamics”? Almost all my friends take their babies to such classes and seem to enjoy them very much.
You understand me well, but I also know how pressured parents are by all the magazines, the media, and by other parents to do something to stimulate learning in their infants. Your question reminds me of a lovely mother who came to my class recently and who has attended several baby stimulation classes, but continues to question if her baby needs it, or if she needs it, and if it’s okay. Of course, things are not that simple. We have to ask what is there for the parent and what is there for the baby in these classes.
It is true that sensory-motor development happens as the first stage of the intellectual learning of babies. In many cultures, people have been led to think that unless infants are taught they don’t learn. Under the guise of teaching has come tight swaddling, being tied to boards, being carried in slings and pouches, placed in infant seats, jumpers or walkers, being immobilized as well as exercised, to the delighted smiles of the parents. The fact that all “normal” children learn to walk clearly shows their amazing resilience.
There is evidence, however, that gross motor development happens naturally when an infant has plenty of space to move in a safe, age-appropriate, and challenging environment. Nowadays, people find it hard to believe that this uninterrupted absorption is leading to learning. However, if you watch babies who are allowed to move freely and without interference you will see that they learn to move gracefully and securely and, through endless repetition and practice, they become well-balanced. These kinds of sensory experiences are learning, and are a great pleasure for a parent to watch!
A father who once asked me whether he should exercise his baby or take him to a gym class was intrigued when I suggested that he imitate all his baby’s movements for about one hour and decide then if his baby needed an additional workout.
After the recent conference, Dr. Pikler and I visited one of those “Baby Swim” classes. There were about fifteen mothers and a few fathers there with babies from four to eight months. Although the instructor explained that the purpose of the class was not to teach the infants how to swim, but simply to help them learn to enjoy the water, and he reminded the parents not to force their babies, he proceeded to instruct with, “Now jump up. Take them under the water. Make the baby kick.” The speed, the excitement, the up and down, didn’t take into account the babies’ or parents’ timing.
To me it felt like an army drill. It made me increasingly uncomfortable to see. For them, the excitement and fun seemed contagious. The babies, however, looked scared and surprised. Some were bewildered. At times a few cried. Yet the parents kept saying, “Isn’t it fun?” Only one mother, of an apparently exhausted baby, said, “I think that is enough for you,” and picked the baby up and rested her on the side of the pool.
All these parents were loving, caring people. Yet they listened to the instructor and reinforced each other with, “Aren’t the babies having fun?” They neither looked at the babies’ faces nor seemed to see or read their children’s feelings. What did these babies really learn or experience? The parents enjoyed being together and needed to reinforce each other in their belief that they were doing the right thing for their infants. They wanted to believe that their babies were learning. They needed to feel confident.
My advice is, to gain confidence, look at your baby. Respond to your baby. Enjoy what your baby is doing right now. If you want to give your infant a positive experience, take the clues from your own observations. While these classes offer support and companionship to parents, the babies, in order to attend these classes, must be interrupted from their natural rhythms of sleep and play, then restricted in infant seats while in the car. They are exposed to a barrage of people and activities and expected to conform to an externally imposed curriculum.
I recommend that parents form small groups in which their babies are the “actors” and “script-writers”. The parents can then watch, learn, and enjoy. My own advice on how to develop play groups appears in the Fall 1981 issue of Educaring.