What’s the Problem With Exersaucers?

Karolee Stauduhar

Recently, during the course of a physical therapy session, I asked the patient’s mom how they spend their day at home with baby. She told me that he has started doing more “tummy time,” which most pediatricians highly recommend for development. She also told me how much he loves his “exersaucer” and spends a lot of time standing and bouncing in it. At four months of age, she was so excited that he was already standing!

As a mom myself, I have always been proud of the accomplishments of my own kids, especially if they did things “early.” As a physical therapist, though, I realized I had neglected to teach this mom how important lots of floor time is. She needed to know that simply standing a baby in a bouncy standing frame for long periods of time may actually delay rolling and crawling and may lead to poor coordination once he starts walking. It also occurred to me that some parents who know we advocate “tummy time” so much may not know WHY.

Motor and cognitive development of infants happens in a distinct process in which foundational movement or acquisition of a skill is an important building block upon which other skills are built. For example:

  • I learn to hold my head up and look around before I roll to try to get that shiny toy.
  • I learn to roll before I sit up.
  • I learn to pull to stand before I can stand independently.

Our muscles and brain learn and grow as we experience these movements, but only when we are physiologically ready to do so. A four-month-old infant won’t be able to stand by himself until his body has developed enough and had successful experiences of movement. As a baby learns to turn and lift his head while on his tummy, he is shifting his weight from his head to his feet, through his whole core. He rotates and lifts his head so much that one day, he “flips” over on his back. Voilà! His first roll! From each successful experience he learns, his brain remembers, and his muscles respond to try it again, but it takes many repetitions to master the skill.

Unfortunately, exersaucers short-circuit the development process. When an infant spends a lot of time in an exersaucer, he is placed in a standing position – he didn’t get there himself. He can’t get down by himself. He can’t roll and get over to that shiny toy or explore this great big new world. But of course I see the appeal of the exersaucer – the baby is safer than being at my feet when I’m cooking dinner for the rest of the family!

As a therapist and a mom, I try to provide suggestions that may be helpful to each individual family. Although my recommendations will not include the exersaucer, I hope to find solutions to the age-old problems of keeping baby safe, encouraging her to grow and thrive and move and explore. The best way to encourage motor development is for baby to spend lots of time on her tummy and let her work out ways to pull up to stand and take her first steps. In therapy settings, we work closely with child and parents to help kids initiate their own movements and build their foundation for exploring the world as they grow.

Karolee Stauduhar, Physical Therapist

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