Proper Spine Development in Babies: The Dos and Don’ts

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It’s no secret that a baby’s spine and the muscles around it grow and transform during the first year of life. Everyone knows, for example, that you have to support a newborn’s head because their neck muscles are weak. We all know the joy at the moment when your baby holds their head up for the first time alone, but what else is going on in those little bodies? How can we support spine health for our little ones?

The spine of a baby develops in three general stages; the primary curve, the secondary curve, and the final curve. Each stage changes the shape and functional ability of the spine. It is important to respond to these changes with proper support of spine health so that your baby’s spine is able to do what it needs to do to grow properly. Lack of support or improper support can lead to problems down the road. Everything you do with your baby can help support a growing body and a healthy spine, from the way you pick them up, to things you do when out and about. It can seem overwhelming but with a few tips and tricks to keep in mind, it will become second nature.

The first stage, when they are born is known as the primary curve stage or the c-curve stage. Lay a newborn on their tummy and you’ll notice they pull their legs in tight, causing their back to curve into a c-shape. This shape is most comfortable for them while their muscles are still weak.

When picking up a baby in any stage, but especially this one, it is important to slip a hand behind the neck and another behind the lower back or lumbar spine area and lift. Keeping the back evenly supported the whole way up not only helps baby feel more secure, but it will avoid the problems of lack of support in key areas that other ways of picking up a baby might cause. One thing you’ll want to avoid doing is picking up the baby by grasping them around the rib cage/under the arms. This leads to no support being given to the neck or lower back and can compress the spine if done often enough. It’s easy to teach people a new way to pick up the baby by showing them the example when you pick up the baby the proper way. If your baby has older siblings ensure they get enough practice before the baby is born by using a doll as a model.

When changing a diaper, it is always better to roll the baby to the side and then back than it is to pick the baby’s rear end up via lifting the ankles. When you lift the ankles in the air it puts an unwelcome strain on the muscles in the back. This can be a hard habit to break, but it’s worthwhile to do so. I learned the “ankle way” in the classes I took before having my baby and I’m sure it’s still being taught right now, but as we learn more about the growth and development of babies we have to take that new knowledge and put it into action.

While it’s important for a newborn to sleep on their back to avoid SIDS, it’s just as important for them to have time off their back to help their muscles grow strong. It’s okay to use a pram for a short trip, it’s better for baby’s back to also alternate out of the pram/stroller and into a good sling. Choose one for your newborn where their back can be supported in the c-shape while you’re wearing them.

As your baby moves into stage 2, the development of the cervical curve by the neck, it’s important to expose the baby to tummy time. Tummy time is when a baby makes their first developmental jump into being able to lift their head, pull up themselves by lifting their chest off the ground using their arms, and beginning to scoot and even crawl. Lay out a blanket in the floor, put some interesting toys within line of sight and let baby explore. Laying down on the floor nearby can help your child feel more secure about tummy time and the interaction will be fun for both of you.

By this point, your baby may be trying to sit up by themselves, but it’s important not to rush it. Putting them in chairs or swings may be tempting but they may not be ready yet. If they are still slumping over in the swing or high-chair wait and try again in a few weeks. Putting a baby in a chair before their spine is ready can cause pressure on their joints which may be painful now, and experts say can even cause their spine to develop improperly. Make sure that you’re not putting the baby in a chair until the baby is old enough and strong enough to sit on their own.

It’s important at this stage for your baby to have as much free moving time as possible. So limit the use of swings or jumpers to only 15 minutes a day, opting for more time on the tummy exploring. Remember that while it’s imperative to use a car seat in the car, once you get home you should remove your baby from the seat as soon as possible.

The final stage is when your baby develops the curve in the lumbar spine. This is when they begin to be able to crawl well, pull up on furniture and eventually learn to walk. It is tempting in this stage to swap to a forward facing carrier rather than a sling because your baby’s curiosity is at a super high level and they’ll want to see everything that is happening. When picking a carrier make sure that the baby’s hips are supported, you want to maintain alignment as much as possible, so avoid any carrier where baby’s legs dangle straight down as this puts pressure on the hip joints and also lower back.

If you’re going to use a walker or exersaucer, make sure that your baby’s legs are strong enough to support them, and that you’re not leaving the baby in them for more than 10-15 minutes twice a day. While these products can be fun for baby and keep them safe for short periods of time, relying on them for too long can hamper your baby’s development of important structures in the back and legs that help support the spine.

As always, use common sense and your own judgment when it comes to your baby. Trust yourself to make these decisions now that you know the basics of how your baby is growing and changing.

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