On my official due date, as night was turning to day, I felt my first contractions. Many hours later, as day gave way to night, my daughter was born. For nine months she had been folded neatly in the womb, her body comfortably in flexion. As she was handed to me, she awkwardly stretched out her arms and tried to straighten her legs. The space to move was hers, for the first time ever, and it was clearly unfamiliar.
As she extended herself into the world and I extended myself into motherhood, we both cried. Her crying eased as I cradled her in my arms and watched her limbs fold gently back to her torso, reconnecting with the familiar. Being a yoga teacher, I had envisioned a potpourri of yoga moves to share with my infant. Holding her for the first time, it was clear that I would practice observation on a new level and let her guide the timing.
Why was I eager to help my daughter move? Perhaps it was to share my love of movement, or spark independent behavior, or maybe to interact with her in a structured way. I knew, instinctively, that it would benefit her—but how?
Benefits of Early Movement
Yoga movements help babies chart a more direct path of growth and development. Babies who have the opportunity to explore movement have greater confidence and ability when it comes time to sit, crawl, and walk. Babies who move with freedom as well as intentional guidance learn early about relating to gravity and relating to people.
Parents and caregivers play an essential role in a baby's early movements. Dr. Richard Walls, a pediatrician in La Jolla, California, says the evidence is clear that sustained physical contact and activity with an adult is a primary stimulus of growth in young children. Doing yoga with a baby fosters this beneficial interaction.
According to psychiatrist Erik Erikson, whose Eight Stages of Development are widely taught basics to understanding growing children, learning trust is the basis of healthy social-emotional development. The physical contact of a loving adult fosters trust and starts baby on the lifelong journey of learning about relationships—to one's self, to others, and to the world. This contact can also ease a young child's nervous system while bolstering his immunity, circulation, and physical growth.
Not surprisingly, more and more yoga studios are offering parent-and-child yoga classes. These aim to nurture parent/child bonding, deepen parents' observations of their babies' growth, and help parents actively participate in their babies' neuromuscular development. Such classes allow parents a place to focus, relax, and enjoy movement with their children, under the guidance of an educated yoga teacher.
Space, or ether, is the medium through which people connect to all things, according to Ayurveda, an ancient sister science to yoga. A baby reaches through space to tug at mom's earring or plead for dad to share his sweet potatoes. But it usually takes a few months before babies are comfortable leaving the arms of a loving adult to be set down for movement.
Staying very close to an infant who is younger than four months of age will be most effective in early yoga practice. Keeping her face close to baby's, a parent can set the child down for leg extensions, reaching arms overhead, and a gentle Pavanamuktasana (Wind Relieving Pose). Baby may be more comfortable on mom or dad's belly than on the floor.
Doing yoga with an older baby who can sit, crawl, or walk excites activity on many levels. A child's vision is stimulated, fostering both spatial differentiation and depth perception. She may start to imitate her parents and learn by example. She explores her range of motion, an important expression of potential.
As a new mother, I was eager to help my daughter move, yet cautious when it came to putting her on her belly. "Since the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) scare, many parents are hesitant to put their baby on their belly," asserts Colette Crawford, a registered nurse specializing in maternal/child health and cofounder of the Seattle Holistic Center.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to put babies on their bellies during waking hours. Playing and exploring the world from this position is essential to a baby's development. Muscle development in an infant starts from head to toe: control of neck muscles comes first, followed by control of the torso and, finally, the muscles of the legs.
Two common yoga poses, Bridge and Downward Facing Dog, are part of a baby's natural yoga repertoire. An infant can do Bridge Pose at about five months of age. This may be her first attempt to put weight on her feet, according to Helen Garabedian, an infant developmental movement educator, registered yoga teacher, and author of Itsy Bitsy Yoga. Babies may also explore the connection between their upper and lower body in Downward Facing Dog Pose. Establishing this coordination is important for crawling.
Experience with yoga asana is not a necessary precursor to doing yoga with a baby. Being mindful of a few basic yoga tenets can, however, enhance the experience. Staying in the present moment, heightening breath awareness, and coming from a place of feeling all combine to create a rhythm between parent and child. Eye contact, intentional movement, gentle touch, and the cadence of voice and breath add to the overall experience of yoga with baby. Singing is often a part of parent/child yoga classes. Through the loving care and handling that yoga facilitates, trust is firmly established.
Sharing yoga mindfulness and yoga moves with a baby will launch her education about relationships. Whether bolstering spatial differentiation, depth perception, range of motion, or interpersonal trust, practicing yoga moves with a baby is a boon to her neuromuscular development and to the parent-child bonding experience.
Amy Stone is a yoga teacher, model, writer, and mother. She is certified by Rodney Yee's Advanced Studies program in Piedmont, California, and is the group fitness director at RiverPlace Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon. Amy spent three years as a faculty teacher at Yoga Journal magazine. Photographs of Amy practicing asana have appeared in books, billboards, and magazines including O and Martha Stewart Living.
Mom in mobility pant from Be Present.