HEAD & NECK SUPPORT IN POSITIONS AND TRANSITIONS
One of the most commonly-needed supports for baby is that of the head and neck. This is often easy to do when holding the baby in one’s arms but challenging to do when picking baby up or putting her down. It is the transition from picking her up off of the floor and putting her back down again that brings moments when her head lacks the necessary support. Parents should learn how to hold and transition baby from one place to another while keeping her head and neck supported.
BABY ANATOMY: EXTENSION VS. HYPEREXTENSION
In the above photos, Donna demonstrates head support with Zizu (about 5 mos. old). The hand can be placed in back of the head so it is cradling the head while the wrist of the same arm crosses in back of the neck and upper back. This prevents the head from tipping backward beyond the position of extension. Extension of the neck is the position of the head when we sit up straight and look forward. Hyperextension is when we sit up straight and look up toward the sky. The latter should be avoided with baby. To complete our anatomy lesson we should also mention that flexion of the neck is the action of looking down toward the floor from a sitting position. When baby is lying on her back in your arms or on the floor, extension exists when her spine and head make a straight line that is parallel to the floor. Hyperextension, which we want to avoid, exists when the head tips backward from the point of extension. This causes great strain on the developing muscles and ligaments of the neck.
THE PERIOSCOPE OF THE 5 SENSES
The great range of motion that is possible with the head and neck exists because we need that mobility to look around us. The somatics pioneer Dr. Moshe Feldenkais referred to the head as the “perioscope of the senses.” You can imagine a submarine with the perioscope moving around to observe what is happening, to determine which way to go, and to steer clear of potential danger. That is what we are basically doing with our head and senses as we move. Thus, we need greater mobility in the neck region of the spine than we do the lower portions such as the middle of the back. The mid-back had less range of motion because it is part of the ribcage which protects vulnerable organs like the heart. The need here is for stability and protection.
TUMMY-TIME FOR BABY NECK STRENGTHENING
Babies develop strong neck muscles through motor skill development. Tummy-time is one of the most important activities for developing this strength. Tummy-time for babies teaches the gross motor skill of lifting the head. By putting baby on her stomach two or three times a day while supervised, she will learn to lift her head very high. At first, begin with only a few minutes on the tummy and gradually increase the time as her strength and comfort improves. This activity develops the strength in her neck and back muscles so she can eventually hold her head up on her own. Remember that it takes time, maybe 2 or 3 months, to develop this strength. Continue to support baby’s head until she can hold her head up on her own for a long time while on her tummy.
“Babies Read Lips Before They Can Speak, Study Shows,” Lauran Neergaard and CBS News Staff, cbsnews.com, 1/17/12.
On the first birthday of one of my Stellar Caterpillars, the father asked me, “She walks so beautifully! Now I can’t wait for her to talk. Do you think you can teach her to talk? I answered, “I can show you how to teach her to talk.” Learning to talk can be broken down into micro-skills they way movement can be broken down into mini-milestones. Recently a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by developmental psychologist David Lewkowicz of Florida Atlantic University confirms that babies learn to speak not just by hearing sounds but also by reading lips.
baby TALKING: ANATOMY LESSON
The moving body parts involved in the action of talking include the lips, tongue and jaw. The lips create the shapes of the mouth that help make the different sounds in speaking. The jaw opens and closes in this process. The tongue moves around inside the mouth to different locations which assists in creating the various sounds we make as well. The intricate coordination of these three body parts create the “movement” of talking.
BABY LIP READING RESEARCH STUDY
The study led by Lewkowicz involved 180 babies at ages 4, 6, 8, and 10 months. Researchers observed babies changing focus on a woman speaking on video in their native language of English and their non-native language of Spanish. The babies’ shifting focus from the lips to the eyes was closely monitored by a gadget placed on a headband.
The researchers found a pattern demonstrating dramatic shift in attention based on the babies’ ages. The 4-month-olds gazed mostly into the eyes, the 6-month-olds spent equal amounts of time looking at the eyes and the mouth, the 8- and 10-month-olds studied mostly the mouth, and at 12 months attention started shifting back toward the speaker’s eyes. When the babies observed the non-native language being spoken, it was necessary to focus on the lips for longer periods of time in order to gain extra information to process the unfamiliar sounds.
BABIES AND LIP READING
The research study led by Lewkowicz is very important because it teaches us the importance of “face-to-face” interaction with baby. Face-to-face interaction can be defined as time when a parent or caregiver puts his or her face quite close (less than 12 inches) to baby and exaggerates words with his or her lips. The words should not be spoken too quickly as babies need time to see what you are doing with your mouth. This visual observation of the moving parts involved in speaking is called “lip reading.” It is the involvement baby’s sense of sight in learning to speak.
Try some face-to-face time with baby while singing a favorite song or repeating one word a few times and exaggerating it with your lips. Don’t be surprised when she reaches out to touch your lips or stick her hand into your mouth. They want to know how you are making those sounds. Next, she will try and imitate you. She will be talking soon!
CHAIR SPINNING EXPERIMENT
The journal Science published a study in 1977 offering promising evidence of the impact of mild vestibular stimulation on the gross motor skill development of babies. Babies ranging from three to thirteen months were subjects of a research project. The gross motor ability of each baby was evaluated prior to the project. Each baby received sixteen sessions of chair spinning (four times a week for four weeks). The researcher seated an infant on his lap and spun around in a swivel chair ten times, and after each single spin he made an abrupt stop. The objective was for the infants to receive stimulation of the three semicircular canals of the vestibular system.
The researcher varied the position of each baby from the following three positions: sitting with the head tilted slightly forward, side-lying on the left side, and side-lying on the right side. The variations in positions provides stimulation to each of the three canals in the vestibular system. The babies loved this experience, and they expressed it through laughing and babbling! Often, they fussed when the chair stopped for its thirty-second rest between spins. In addition to this group that received the chair-spinning, there were two “control” groups of infants. One group that did not spin at all, and one group that sat in the chair on a researcher’s lap for sixteen sessions, but did not spin.
RESULTS: ADVANCED MOTOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT
The results showed that the group which received the chair spinning treatment improved in their motor skill development significantly more than the infants in the two control groups. The babies who were spun showed advanced development of not only their motor skills, but also their reflexes. It is noted that the gross motor skills of sitting, crawling, standing and walking were particularly improved in the group which received the stimulation.
VESTIBULAR STIMULATION AND STRENGTH FOR BABY
What we learn from this experiment is that it is not only muscular strength that is necessary to develop motor skills, but also vestibular activity. When baby learns each of the Stellar Caterpillar “Top 10″ motor skills, she is receiving vestibular stimulation which facilitates learning her next motor skill. After baby learns “lifting the head,” which brings a certain amount of vestibular stimulation, she learns “rolling.” When baby learns to roll, she often rolls across the floor, which brings an increase in vestibular stimulation. This level of stimulation does not occur with a random roll, but with a series of rolls, one after another. It also stimulates different canals from lifting the head. From the above experiment we know that babies who receive vestibular stimulation may show advanced development of gross motor skills such as crawling, standing, and walking. By “advanced development” we do not mean that they achieve these milestones earlier than average, but they acquire them with advanced skill. Advanced skill means they perform the skill deliberately with repetition, confidence, and optimal mechanics.
VESTIBULAR SYSTEM DEFINED
Rocking, swaying, spinning, bouncing, carrying, and jiggling are techniques instinctively used by parents with baby to calm, soothe, and induce sleep. Why? Because of their effect on the vestibular system. Considered to be one of baby’s most highly developed senses at birth, the vestibular system is responsible for balance and motion perception. It also plays an essential role in maintaining the head and body posture.
ANATOMY OF THE VESTIBULAR SYSTEM
Located in the skull, in a small space called the vestibule, the vestibular apparatus consists of three semi-circular canals. Each canal is filled with fluid and lined with tiny hairs. When the fluid moves it stimulates the hairs and triggers a series of electrical signals which send information to the brain. The superior, horizontal, and posterior canals, as they are named, are situated in different directions or angles from one another. Thus, one canal may be stimulated more than another depending on our direction and plane of movement. This stimulation sends the signals to the brain which tell us our position in space and provide balance. The vestibule also houses the inner ear and the otolith organs. Some motion such as head tilts and linear movements are sensed by the otolith organs.
PRENATAL VESTIBULAR STIMULATION
In 1922, Minkowski identified the vestibular system as well-developed in early human fetuses. Minkowski became noted for his research and findings on fetal development. During the prenatal period, the fetus experiences a lot of moving around due to the constantly changing position within the warm amniotic fluid that cushions her from the outside world. The fetus experiences positional changes relative to gravity as well. When the mother is standing up the weight of the fetus shifts in response to gravity and when the mother is sleeping on her back the fetus moves in a different direction in response to this orientation. These are examples of the kind of passive motion stimulation the fetus receives during the prenatal period. All three canals in the vestibular system sense these changes in position and motion.
Later in the pregnancy the mother begins to feel the baby kicking and other reflexive movements, adding to the motion stimulation. Because the level of prenatal motion is particularly high, after birth the baby will probably not experience the same degree of vestibular stimulation until she starts independently walking.
POSTNATAL VESTIBULAR STIMULATION
Parents quickly learn that baby responds quite well to motion. From rocking baby to sleep to spinning in a circle with baby to thwart her fussiness, parents turn again and again to motion for inducing calm, quiet, and sleepy states of their infant. The vestibular system is stimulated with these activities and that is a familiar and welcome feeling to baby. The acquisition of motor skills that move the head and body in space offer a lot of vestibular stimulation that is self-induced. This is part of the pleasure in the movement for baby. Not only do they get the “feeling” of the movement, but they can create it for themselves whenever they want. For example, rolling across the floor moves the vestibular apparatus around and around with each roll. Another example is the skill of lifting the head up and down while in tummy time. Research suggests that these activities improve the brain and mind development.
DEVELOPMENT OF BABY HEARING
The fetus in the womb hears sound that is transmitted by liquid, which softens or muffles the sounds to some extent. After birth, babies hear a variety of sounds, yet tend to be disturbed only by the sudden loud noises. These “violent” sounds elicit the startle reflex, seen as a jerking of the head backward, bulging of the eyes, and flexion of the elbows.
ANATOMY OF BABY’S EAR
There are two distinct branches of the auditory nerve. One is the cochlear branch which carries sound information to the brain and the other is the vestibular branch which detects motion and tells us where we are in space. Anatomy books show how closely these two branches are interconnected. We also know that the stimulation of a nerve in a baby travels through the body more than in an adult. For example, if you scratch a baby’s foot, the muscles of the entire body respond. When a baby hears a loud sound, since these two branches are close together and newly developing, the strong stimulus travels over to the vestibular branch of the same nerve. Thus, the baby not only hears the sound (cochlear branch) but physically feels it in his limbs (vestibular branch). His head jerks backward, deepening the physical sensation when the movement of the fluid in the ear further stimulates the vestibular branch. It is possibly experienced as pain, suggests Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais in his book The Elusive Obvious, which examines fundamental physiology patterns in humans.
The above video from oleviasea’s youtube channel is one clear example of this reaction. In this situation, the father’s snoring is staged, but the baby’s reaction is not. The noise is indeed near the threshold of feeling.
BABY PLAY AND MOVEMENT
One can never learn enough games for babies! Each lesson with baby begins with a game of proprioception. I touch different parts of baby’s body and tell her the name of that body part: “This is your upper leg,” or “This is your lower arm.” I hold the contact with the body part long enough so she can clearly feel it. By increasing baby’s feeling of her body parts she prepares herself for learning movements. It is not unlike your gym workouts in which you learn to feel your quadriceps (front of thigh) muscles before you can effectively exercise them. As she clearly feels the bones of her arms and legs, for example, it becomes easier for her to move them. Soon this results in a motor skill such as rolling. When on her back, her arm and leg may move far enough to one side that it shifts her weight so much that she rolls onto her tummy. With this game of baby play, babies learn to feel their bones. Babies enjoy this game – just watch the above clip of Rochel! She is familiar with the game and enjoys it every time.
VARIATIONS OF TOUCH
The “game” part of this comes in with the varieties of sound and touch. You can pull your hand away quickly or with a sound to make it fun for her. Babies love novelty! You can change the order, sometimes begin by touching her arms and other times by touching her feet. Observe her reactions and play with the sound or variation that she is enjoying. It is very important to notice how she responds and create your “game strategy” accordingly. Sometimes with the younger babies the touch needs to be slow and more quiet. It is new for them so we want to introduce it gradually. Rochel has received lessons since she was three months old. In the video above she is about ten months old so we have to find a way to make the game new each time we play it. In the beginning, repetition is also very important. Touch each major bone about three times for her to feel it clearly. With the younger babies this game also helps to provide a sense of comfort and security. Many mothers find it helpful to play this baby game before going to sleep.
The process of learning to feel and move one’s body can be a wonderful form of baby play!