The benefits of baby exercise classesLike it or not, you and I both need regular exercise to stay fit and healthy. The same thing’s true for your baby. But does your budding little athlete need exercise classes — even before he can walk?

“If parents want to make babies more fit, they don’t need exercise classes,” says Laura Crooks, OTR, director for Rehabilitation Services at Children’s Hospital. Babies don’t need anything other than regular physical play to help them be fit and healthy, Crooks says. But there are some benefits to boosting motor development; it’s related to other aspects of child development such as speech and language. “For children who participate with caregivers,” says Crooks, “baby exercise stimulates all kinds of development and early learning.”

A brain boost

“Movement matters,” agrees Terry Goetz, director of Education and Outreach for the Creative Dance Center (CDC) in North Seattle, which offers infant classes beginning at age 2 months. The “BrainDance,” part of all CDC classes, is based on research that shows babies move through patterns of movement that “wires” the baby's brain. CDC instructors teach parents about these patterns, emphasizing the importance of things like tummy time and crawling, so parents can support their babies in moving through these patterns at their own pace. “Repetition of these movement patterns can lead to healthy, fully integrated bodies and brains in babies,” says Goetz.

Better together

The social aspect of baby exercise classes is key, according to Crooks. When children exercise with the important adults in their lives, it helps them see fitness as a meaningful part of a healthy life. Baby exercise classes can be part of a lifelong social commitment to physical development; a social experience that families can share, rather than merely a task placed on the child.

Many baby exercise programs emphasize that social connection. Sheri Cohen, who teaches parent/toddler yoga classes at Lotus Yoga in Columbia City, says that in her classes, “Adults model playfulness, experimentation and a willingness to move our bodies — and toddlers want to be like us!”

Jason Preston, owner of The Little Gym in Puyallup, also finds ways to encourage parents to be involved with their babies inside and outside of class. “One of the things we tell our parents during class is ‘the more you do, the more your baby will do.’ This applies to class as well as the real world. We hope parents will get out there and do something fun with their kids!” says Preston.

Crooks suggests that parents look for baby exercise classes with a holistic approach that incorporates play with motor development. “An infant exercise class should have a group orientation so parents can receive peer support,” she says. And parents should curb their competitive urges. “It’s not about making a child stronger or faster as a baby,” says Crooks.

Age-appropriate fun

You won’t find any argument from Karen Crowe, MA, director of Child Development at Lil’ Kickers Soccer at Arena Sports, which teaches children starting at 18 months of age in facilities in Seattle and Redmond. “We want to honor where kids are developmentally,” says Crowe. “Our curriculum is fun but challenging in a way that is attainable to kids.” Sometimes, parents seek more of a competitive atmosphere and more discipline associated with soccer skills. That’s not what it’s about for little ones, says Crowe. “We try to develop fundamental skills that will build a strong foundation for later development of specific soccer skills and will prepare kids to be competitive much later, when it’s developmentally appropriate, at about age 8 or 9.”

The upside for parents

Many parents find they too get something out of baby exercise classes. Seattle mom Ellen Gryj attended CDC’s Nurturing Baby classes with her daughter, Chloe. Gryj found the gentle stretches and dancing were a nice way to start gaining postpartum exercise. She also observed benefits for her baby, who recognized songs and started moving to the music before she could crawl. “Even now, she has some dances she associates with certain songs from class,” says Gryj. “It was excellent early musical and movement stimulation.”

Sometimes parents find that baby exercise classes are simply a good way in the rainy Northwest to give a busy child a way to get some beans out. “We started Little Gym classes because I had been taking Jack to story time at the library,” explains Trina Fykerud of Kenmore. “He was the only kid who could not sit still during the story! He needed the opportunity to release energy in a positive way.”

Likewise, parents may find exercise to be a healthy way to get themselves out of the house and meet other parents. And you never know what you will learn about your baby just by trying something new.

Tera Schreiber is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of two children. To say that they are active is an understatement.

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