What are the best exercises to help baby reach strength and movement goals in their first year? Find out our top picks, and how exactly they help baby get stronger.
Just like it helps older children and adults, exercise is a way to keep babies healthy and build their strength.
Baby needs exercise to reach motor development milestones, such as head control, sitting up, crawling, standing, and eventually walking.
Exercise also helps keep baby happy, encourages better sleep, and can lessen fussiness.
Yes, the types of exercises for baby may look a bit different than what you’d expect. But although moving the legs back and forth, playing on the tummy, and picking up slightly weighted objects may sound simple, these exercises offer plenty of benefits for your little one.
What are the best exercises to help baby reach strength and movement goals in their first year? Read on for our top picks, and how exactly they help baby’s strength and motor development.
1. Tummy time
Tummy time is one of the best ways to give your baby exercise. It strengthens the neck, shoulder, arm, and back muscles needed for several milestones: holding up the head, pushing up, reaching, rolling over, sitting, and crawling. And you can start giving baby tummy time as soon as they’re home from the hospital.
How to give baby tummy time?
- Pick a time when baby is fully awake and alert, and when you can closely watch baby for the entire time they spend on their tummy.
- Then, place them down on their tummy, on a soft, flat surface (such as a soft floor, blanket, towel, or mat).
- Engage baby so they want to lift their head, look around, and reach.
- Position your face at eye level, then talk to them, sing to them, or make silly faces.
- You could also read to them, and hold the book’s pictures at eye level.
- Make things even more fun with toys.
- Start by shaking toys at eye level to encourage them to look up.
- Then, hold or place toys just out of reach, so baby will need to lift their head and grab them.
- As baby gets older, place toys in a circle around baby, so they will need to move around and reach.
- Increase the distance between baby and the toys as they build their skills, to help them work towards crawling.
How long should a tummy time session be?
- Start with 3- to 5-minute sessions, twice or three times per day.
- Add more time as baby gets used to being on their tummy.
- By 3-4 months of age, baby should spend 30 minutes to an hour on their tummy per day (divided into several sessions).
- As baby gets closer to crawling, try giving them single tummy time sessions that last a half-hour to an hour.
- Once they’re crawling often, they won’t need tummy time.
2. Bicycling the legs
Bicycling baby’s legs isn’t just a gas relief technique. It’s also a way to build baby's leg, hip, and ab strength.
This exercise is simple:
- While baby lies on their back, gently circle their legs around, almost like they’re pedaling a bicycle.
- Make 3 to 5 circles, stop for a bit, then repeat.
- While doing this, talk, coo, or sing to engage baby.
- As long as baby smiles, kicks, and looks at you, keep going.
- Stop when they don’t seem interested in the exercise anymore.
3. Baby sit-ups
In this exercise, you pull baby in and out of the sit-ups, but their body will still do plenty of work.
Sit-ups strengthen baby’s ab muscles. They also help build neck muscles, because baby will want to keep their head in line with the rest of their body.
You can start this exercise around 6 weeks of age.
Watch this video from My Gym for a visual on how to help with baby sit-ups:
Or, follow these instructions:
- Lay baby on their back, and face them, with their legs in between yours.
- Then, gently hold onto their wrists and forearms.
- If baby doesn’t have full head control yet, place your hands behind their head, and your arms behind their shoulders, instead.
- Lift them up towards a seated position, giving them a little bit of resistance.
- They might only be able to go up an inch or two at first, but as they build muscle, you’ll eventually be able to lift them into a full sit.
- Then, reposition your hands so one hand stays on baby’s wrist and forearm, and the other one is behind their head.
- Lower them down, making sure their head doesn’t touch the ground.
- As baby gets older, pull them into a sitting position, then into a standing position.
4. “Lifting weights”
Once baby starts grasping at objects (around 3-4 months of age), you can place them in a high chair or other supported seating position, and present different enticing toys as their “weights” to grasp and lift.
This builds hand-eye coordination, helps strengthen hand, arm, and shoulder muscles, and improves their grasping and lifting skills.
You may need to model the “weightlifting” first – lift an object, inspect it, and put it down. And be sure to give baby plenty of praise when they lift a “weight” on their own. You could also build in praise by using toys that light up or make sounds when they are lifted.
5. Toe to the ear
Here’s another fun exercise for baby while they’re on their back – and another way to strengthen the leg muscles. It’s best for babies age 5 months and up.
- While baby is on their back, straighten their legs as much as you can.
- Then, slowly bring baby’s right big toe to their left ear (keep the legs straight, be gentle, and don’t force it).
- Repeat this with the other foot – gently bring baby’s left big toe to their right ear, keeping the leg as straight as you can.
- Repeat 3 to 5 times on each side.
6. Dancing on the toes
Babies love being held on their toes. This can also help build their leg strength!
Support baby well by holding them under the armpits, and let them find their balance. In the process, they’ll likely move their feet like they’re dancing!
Remember that it’s hard for younger babies to stand like this for long periods, so don’t keep this exercise going too long.
7. Baby’s first yoga pose
The “happy baby” yoga pose, where babies grab their feet and sway while lying on their back, is something babies tend to do naturally. And it’s great for baby’s hip muscles!
If baby doesn’t grab their feet after you put them on their back with their legs up, you can help with a similar pose. Hold their feet, keep their knees bent, and keep their legs open while they are on their back.
8. Wheelbarrow hold
You might remember the “wheelbarrow races” from when you were a kid. Surprisingly, you can hold baby in a similar position and help them strengthen the muscles needed for crawling. (This exercise is meant for babies who are about to crawl, and are at least 6-7 months of age).
- Hold baby tummy down, and support their tummy and pelvis with one hand.
- Hold their legs with your other hand.
- Lower baby so their hands are on the floor and they are using their hands and arms to support themself.
- Keep baby in this position for about three seconds.
9. “Mountain climbing” and “exploring”
This one’s for slightly older babies who have started to crawl.
On a soft floor, create a little “hill” using a few pillows. As you keep a close watch, encourage your little one to crawl over the pillow mountain!
Feel free to combine this with placing toys around a room, for baby to crawl and retrieve. It’ll be great fun for your little explorer, and it’ll keep building those core muscles that they’ll eventually need to stand and walk.
Most babies will be ready to cruise between 9 and 11 months of age. This is the starting point of walking, where baby learns to balance while holding onto furniture.
Start out by holding one of baby’s hands while they put the other hand on the furniture and move. Then, support them lightly from the back while they move along the furniture with both hands. Eventually, baby will want to cruise on their own, and you’ll just need to supervise.
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