Great Stuff Happens Before Walking and Talking


By Rachael Carnes

Part One: Thoughts for Expectant Parents and Newborn Caregivers

Newborn cues are subtle…

But newborn babies do communicate. Sure, they cry. In fact, most will spend a good part of each 24-hour period crying. They’re letting you know what they need! And by doing so, even tiny babies are actively participating in their own survival. But there’s more to a tiny baby’s communication skills than that four-alarm cry that says, “I’m wet!” or “I’m tired!” or “I’m really, really hungry!” Babies make a connection with their caregivers, right from the start, through physical and emotional bonding. This playful engagement, the daily (and nightly!) interaction between child and caregiver, provides what Developmental Psychologist and Learning Theorist John Bowlby refers to as “a secure base.” A secure base to move forward from, a place to grow out of: the caregivers provide the nurturing ground that from which the little person will develop. How? All the soothing and cuddling and care of the first eight weeks, all that walking and rocking and late-night song sessions are actually helping your baby’s brain to develop and her body to grow.

The Universal Dance

Bonding and attachment between baby and caregiver is a duet that develops over time, but the choreography seems universal: Babies, from the beginning, want to know, and know a lot already. Incredibly, the world-over, babies of different cultures and backgrounds will tend to proceed through the same movement patterns in the first eight weeks of life. Why is this surprising? Although we may be as a species separated by racial, economic or cultural chasms, we are all mammalian, we all have the same need for survival and not only to eat enough food or to find shelter, but as a species, we have a need to engage with one another, to create meaningful, caring connections among the people we love, and we have a need to learn. The process of that early learning is predictable; miraculous even, and easily recognized if you know what to look for. As a movement educator and mother, it is astounding to me to note that we seem to know more implicitly how we tend to lose our neurological faculties at the other end of our lives, as an elderly person first loses her balance, then her coordination, then speech, continence, control over regulatory systems, etc. But how do we learn? How are our brains and bodies designed to work in harmony to create a being that is integrated and ready to take on the trials and tribulations of the growth and development that lies ahead? How is this process demonstrated? What can we look for to guide us towards a greater awareness of our baby’s amazing growth?

Re-thinking “Tummy Time”: The Prone Progression

Lately we’ve been hearing the term “Tummy Time” bandied about. You can even go the toy store and buy a toy meant just for “tummy time”. But what is tummy time supposed to be doing, anyway? Why is it important? Did babies have tummy time before there were batteries and plastic? For answers, let’s take a look at how babies the across the globe tend to move as newborns. What does this process mean for their maturing cognitive, emotional and physical selves? Let’s “crawl” through the prone progression, the solo that babies have been born knowing for millions of years to find out!

Here are some universal physical milestones that newborns move through that correlate to emotional, neurological and regulatory development:

The Prone Progression:

The Prone Position

Reaching Out

Head side to side and up and down

Upper and Lower Body up and down

The Prone Position

Babies, even the littlest ones, can spend some time each day on their tummies. On their stomachs, babies will be better able to regulate their involuntary systems such as breathing, temperature, digestion and blood pressure regulation and the myriad physical reflexes that herald future mobility. On their tummies, babies will have access to an important early learning tool: the tactile sense, which allows their whole body to act as a sensory sponge, absorbing information like texture, temperature and the gentle rhythms of their caregivers’ touch. In this prone position, babies encourage the stimulation of their autonomic nervous systems, the precisely balanced system that controls the hardwiring of body and brain. As they move on their stomachs, curling and unfurling for the very first time outside the womb, stretching and grasping with tiny hands and feet, grimacing and yawning, babies develop their visceral brains, the area responsible for the deepest instinct and response. Through this effort, their posture and balance are tested, strengthening the core muscles along the spine, which will lay the groundwork for creeping and crawling. Supporting all this development is a seemingly innate desire the newborn has to bond with his or her caregivers, and as s/he plays on his/her tummy, s/he has the opportunity to show off some amazing accomplishments!

Reaching out

As babies stretch out and curl back in, they will begin to explore their new world. Can we imagine what it must feel like to have spent the last two months in a weightless environment, upside-down, only to enter a new world where we can move our bodies through space with such ease? Sure, the littlest arms and legs may not work in a perfectly coordinated fashion yet, but the way they explore the space stretches and strengthens the shoulders and the hips, the proximal joints, allowing for greater freedom of movement down the road.

Head side to side and up and down

A tiny baby may rub his face from side to side, and this enhances visual tracking. There’s a common misconception that babies can’t see. This is not the case! A newborn can see clearly to a depth of about 14″, the distance, generally, between the baby-in-arms and his mother’s face. When babies practice turning their faces from side to side, they are not only stretching and strengthening the postural muscles needed to stabilize the neck and shoulders, but they are also beginning to develop their horizontal eye tracking. This development has greater implications even than the reading and writing that your baby will be doing later on. As your baby practices moving his head from side to side, the eyes will actually stimulate the nervous system to send messages to the brain, creating new neural connections. As your baby begins to lift his or her head off the ground, looking up and down, s/he uses the same process to focus her attention on the vertical plane. Even a newborn knows how to begin to orient in space, becoming more aware of up and down and side to side, and as s/he maneuvers through this new modality, her body sends messages to the brain through the autonomic nervous system to begin to develop more of the limbic brain, the locus of feeling and expression. Looking side to side and up and down correlates, too, to emotional and social centers, as your baby begins to form deeper attachments to caregivers, looking for and seeking familiar, loving faces.

Lifting the upper body and the lower body

As babies play with lifting their heads and shoulders off the ground, or carrying the weight of their little hips and legs into space, they are exploring not only the way their body feels through the kinesthetic sense, but how they might one day soon begin to locomote. The process of differentiation between the upper-lower, and later the two sides of the body, allow for the small person to tackle coordinated movement such as crawling and walking. As some babies play with how their different body parts work, they may flop over in a roll or start spinning in a circle on their stomachs. Lifting their upper and lower bodies, flexing and curling their postural muscles stimulate the babies’ reflexive movements to solidify into voluntary actions. They’re beginning to differentiate their arms and legs, to coordinate their movement and seek out new experience as their sense of “self” begins to emerge.

She’s Here. Now What?

Some ideas for expecting or new parents to help them to enhance and applaud their beautiful little baby’s growth and development:

When your baby spends some time playing on her tummy each day, you are helping to promote her healthy physio-emotional integration while supporting my baby’s full potential in the first weeks and months of life. Time on her tummy actively engage a newborn’s five senses, is important for brain growth and can be started from birth. Active play with baby through tummy time and other movement activities can even be incorporated into daily self-care for the caregiver, as we balance taking care of baby and taking care of ourselves. As we shower baby with love and affection, s/he will also work towards creating a bond between us, even in early infancy. There is a universal process of physical, emotional and social development in early infancy and the way we play with and nurture our children can help to facilitate and enhance this.

Perhaps we can utilize the ways that babies move, as a strategy for understanding the language of the newborn. When we take the moment to observe them, noticing the strength and will they seem to possess, we see more than a beginning, more than a blank slate. We see our history, or commonality. We see ourselves.


Part II: The Prone Progression Continues:
Older Babies and Toddlers Moving out Into Their Worlds

From a developmental standpoint, babies and toddlers grow at a phenomenal rate. Not only are they maturing physically, the most obvious demarcations are weight and height, but their brains and emotional dexterity are increasing all the time, too. When you take your child into the pediatrician and his head circumference is measured, it’s a direct reflection of all that wonderful brain growth.

But the nurse or doctor who measures your little one’s noggin and dutifully writes the number on a chart may not mention that what’s causing the number of centimeters to increase, actually increasing the size of your child’s brain, isn’t the number of brain cells, but the synaptic connections among them! Your child’s brain, the intricate folds and creases of synaptic fibers and tissues, the stuff of life, actually grow with every experience she has! Every new experience fires information synaptically, creating more connections among brain cells, “hardwiring” your baby’s brain for life.

Imagine for a moment when telephones were invented: at first, there were a limited number of connections among them. But over time, these connections multiplied exponentially: like the neurological passages throughout your child’s brain, soon there were direct or indirect connections linking every phone to every other phone systematically. But although the complexities of a phone system might seem quite remarkable, they cannot compare to the sheer wonder of how the healthy human brain generates its own learning system: your baby actually seems to know how to learn. Not only is s/he cute as a button, this little smarty- pants actually knows what s/he needs to do and when s/he needs to do it in order to enhance his/her learning potential, to become emotionally attached and to achieve the physical milestones set out in the first two years.

Let’s take a look at how this process evolves…

In the womb, myelinization, or cell differentiation, occurs as your baby’s cells navigate their way to their different roles, like bone or hair or muscle. We have an understanding today that the prenatal environment is more interesting for baby than once believed: your baby can experience shadows, sounds, movement and an emotional landscape. As a newborn, your little one begins to make great strides in body-mind integration that will lay the foundation for future learning, emotional connections and physical dexterity. But how is the older baby or the toddler working at learning? By moving through the patterns s/he naturally tries to go through, your baby will actually help her own brain to develop certain areas that are designated for tasks like language, emotion, speech, gross motor and fine motor skills. The work of babies and toddlers is play, and we should take their play seriously! By giving older babies and toddlers the opportunity to play at a level that is age-appropriate and unrestricted, we’ll provide them with all the encouragement and love they need to do what their little brains and bodies were designed to do: experiment, learn and grow.

Let’s look at some of the fantastic learning babies and toddlers are up to as they move out of early infancy and through their development in the first 18 months of life!

Hey, I’m spinning in a circle!

After exploring their upper and lower bodies on their tummies, babies will often begin to initiate a discovery of their two body-halves. If you could draw a line down your mid-section, from your head to your pelvis, the two halves would function in organizing your right and left sides of the body. Although babies may not think in terms of “right” and “left”, they will begin to play with rolling, and even spinning around in a circle, pulling themselves like a little pinwheel on the floor. This exploration balances the two hemispheres of the brain, enhances visual eye-tracking and establishes early kinesthetic awareness of arms and legs working in opposition to each other. This spinning in a circle allows baby to change her vantage point, her point of view, giving her the chance to look at what she wants to, or just to take pleasure in the kinesthetic sense of having the power to move one’s self through space. If we take a moment to think about the movement/stillness necessary to coordinate crawling and walking, you can see why spinning in a circle is fun, and helpful, practice!

The Belly Crawl

Often times, before a baby is ready to lift the weight of her belly off the floor and balance on her hands and knees to locomote through the space, she’ll spend some time doing a belly crawl, or “commando” crawl. As she scoots on her belly like an adorable Gila monster, she’s actively engaging her upper and lower body, she’s working to stretch and strengthen her shoulders and hips, she’s lifting her head and neck to see where she’s going so she’s getting some terrific vertical eye-tracking, but she’s also acknowledging and acting on her little desire for some independence! She may not be ready to take the keys to the car, but she is exerting her will to move through space. Maybe she wants to get that toy or find the cat’s water dish or commando crawl over to you, her favorite playmate. Whatever the motivation, she’s doing good stuff for her growing social, physical and neurological self. One simple thing we can do to help baby play is to give him some “traction” by rolling up sleeves and pants and letting him scoot on a warm, clean floor. By scooting around, she exerts a physical presence, she plays with her environment in a new way and she increases her contact with the world. During this phase, too, the areas of the brain that are responsible for speech are being built, so it is lovely to imagine your baby seeking out new experiences on her own volition to enhance her own acquisition and understanding of the sounds. Learning speech and language is inherently social, and she seeks that connection through her physical movement.

Up on All Fours

“He is into everything!” One day your little one is dazzling you with adorable yoga poses, lifting his legs straight into the air, rocking back and forth, stretching and curling, then one day: look out, he’s off and tearing around like he owns the place! Congratulations, kid, you can get around on your own: now you’ve earned the “he’s into everything” award. But before we skim over cross-lateral crawling as a cute but sort of terrifying phase, wherein our little ones seem perilously close to bonking themselves, eating dog kibble, wanting to chew stereo wires, etc, let’s take a moment to see some of the great things going on through crawling on hands and knees. This cross-lateral movement, with the body coordinated to work in opposition, fuels a steady growth in the development of vertical and horizontal eye tracking, which are both important for reading and writing as well as numerical understanding. When babies are moving through the phase when they are doing cross-lateral crawling, and constantly “underfoot,” the centers of the brain responsible for language, memory, reasoning, planning, logic and problem solving are “lighting up”. So embrace your baby’s wind-up doll wiggle, give him or her safe place to play where s/he can really go to town and let him/her explore!

But what if my kiddo doesn’t want to crawl? And what about walkers, bouncy seats or car seats and “exersaucers”?

Cross-lateral patterning is currently an area of greater research into brain development, and more work is being done to understand the developmental implications of tummy time for older babies. My advice to parents or caregivers whose children don’t seem to start crawling on their own is: first of all, don’t worry. Next, I would suggest that they make crawling an engaging and fun activity. Babies learn through play. So try making tunnels, or mountains of pillows to crawl over, or spend some time each day exploring any of the myriad of ways babies and toddlers can have fun on their tummies. “Tummy time”, or time spent in a prone position, isn’t just for little ones: it can help any age person feel better. (Why do you think so many people love practicing yoga?)

As for walkers, bouncy seats and exersaucers, I have advice as a mother and as a movement educator. As a mom, I’m as busy as anyone. Like you, I have to cook dinner, clean the tub, or make important phone calls. Realistically, I understand that we don’t all have people around all day to help us with our kids. But as a movement educator, I would rather see babies crawling around a playpen than confined to a walker or exersaucer for any length of time. Walkers have been demonstrated to be dangerous, causing baby to topple and fall. After they received bad press, toy manufacturers brought out “exersaucers.” These may limit mobility and restrict babies to the vertical plane. If your baby has one and loves it, that’s terrific. But use it judiciously, to buy you a little time, because baby should still be allowed to experience as much freedom of play.

Off and running!

It is my hope as a movement educator that by the time every baby pushes herself up to sit, pulls up to cruise the furniture and teeters through her first little steps, she has the emotional confidence, physical moxie and neurological centeredness to assimilate, process and create new experiences. If children are able to create a balanced body-brain relationship early on, my hope is that they will not have to face such neurological issues as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia or dysnumerica, behavioral disorders or learning disabilities later on. If we give children an opportunity, they will show us, through the way they play, how they want to learn. This learning process is gentle, appropriate to your child’s development and quite magical to see unfold every day.

My hope is that knowing a bit more about the fabulous stuff their babies are up to will help parents to applaud their baby’s practice, endless curiosity and insatiable desire to explore!

The Prone Progression: Part III

24 months of early child development on one page!

Playtime is learning time!

Below is a one-page-print-it-and-put-it-on-the-fridge-chart about How your baby and toddler’s emotional, social, physical and cognitive abilities grow and develop through movement play

To see how your baby’s growth and development in the first weeks set the stage for future body-brain integration, look over this chart for movement experiences, neurological growth and emotional attachment.

Click to open: pyramid (135k pdf file) or the
glossary relating to movement and brain development.

© 2003-2017 Rachael Carnes