YOUR CHILD’S SPINAL DEVELOPMENT
We who are parents have a tremendous influence on the development and future health of our children’s spines. Would you believe me if I said that what we do or fail to do, as early as their first year, can determine whether or not they will have back or neck problems later in life?
The health of a person’s spine is basically determined by two things: genetics and environmental influences. We can’t change genetics, but we can produce a “spine-friendly” environment for our children that will make a huge impact on their future health.
Thank you to Dr. Moore of Health Solutions Chiropractic, a top-rated chiropractor in Williston, ND for providing this article. Read more below!
SPINAL CURVES: THE GOOD ONES VS. THE BAD ONES
One of the most important ingredients in having a healthy, pain-free spine in adulthood is the proper development of the spinal curves in childhood. Viewed from the front on an x-ray, the human spine should be straight, like a skyscraper. Curvatures here would be considered abnormal; we would call this scoliosis. When viewed from the side, however, three major spinal curves are visible: a forward curve in the neck, a curve in the opposite direction in the upper back, and a forward curve again in the lower back. These are good curves that must be present because they help the spine absorb shock like a spring, giving it resilience and strength. If these curves fail to develop properly in childhood, it predisposes the person to spinal problems in adulthood.
When do these curves begin to develop? The first one develops in the womb and is called the “C curve” because the child is curled up like a “C”, commonly known as the fetal position. This curve normally persists only in the upper back and sacrum (tailbone). The neck and lower back should develop curves in the opposite direction after the child is born. Whether this happens or not is largely a result of what we as parents do for our kids those first few years of their lives.
The cervical (neck) curve is the first to develop after birth. Imagine an infant on their stomach, just able to lift their head up to look around. Lifting their head from this prone position is what strengthens the muscles in the back of the neck, and over time actually shapes the vertebrae (spinal bones) to create a forward curve in the neck.
If a baby is always placed on their back when awake or left in a baby swing, the “C” curve will tend to persist in the neck. In this position, the muscles in the front of the neck (flexors) will grow stronger than those in the back of the neck (extensors) and may destine the child to have neck pain, headaches, ear infections or other problems resulting from a reversed or under-developed cervical curve.
WHY TEACHING YOUR CHILD TO WALK MAY BE HARMFUL
Crawling is the most beneficial thing your child can do for the future health of their spine. It’s always exciting for parents to see their baby stand upright and even more thrilling when he or she takes their first steps. However, encouraging your child to walk may not be in their best interest.
When a baby crawls, he/she must lift their head up to see the world around them. This develops strong extensor muscles (back of the neck) and helps form a healthy forward curve in the neck. The force of gravity tends to pull the abdomen down, helping the lumbar curve to form. The longer a child crawls, the more likely he/she is to develop healthy spinal curves.
Children who crawl also tend to become better physically coordinated than children who walk too early. Crawling helps develop nerve pathways, known as the “cross-crawl mechanism”, which is used later to coordinate running, walking and dozens of other everyday activities. Many experts now believe that an under-developed cross-crawl mechanism may even lead to learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
Crawling builds strong core muscles and develops healthy spinal muscle reflex patterns which help protect the spine into adulthood. Some authorities believe that a child may be more prone to the abnormal curves of scoliosis if healthy spinal curves and spinal muscle patterns are not established through crawling.
Keep in mind that baby swings, walkers, johnny jump-ups and other devices have been created more for parent convenience rather than the child’s growth and development. Babies enjoy the upright position, and when baby’s happy, everyone’s happy, right? Using a johnny jump-up can help develop muscular strength and coordination, but it is a poor trade-off for crawling, and should only be used minimally. Baby swings and walkers are purely detrimental.
As I mentioned, these healthy spinal curves help make our back and neck more flexible and resilient under stress, especially when lifting something. The discs (like rubber cushions between the spinal bones) also absorb shock, but when the curves are underdeveloped, or worse, reversed, these cushions have to absorb all of the shocks. Over time, these discs can be more easily damaged. We call this disc herniation. Or the discs will wear out prematurely. We call this degenerative disc disease (DDD). The stiffness many people experience as they get older is usually caused by DDD.
In many cases, the proper curves in our spines can be improved as adults, with chiropractic care and rehabilitative exercises and stretches, but it becomes more difficult to make these changes as we get older. So, let your child crawl. Children have a natural drive to learn to walk, and it’s best not to encourage them or praise them when they do. There are plenty of other things we can praise our children for in that stage of their lives.
OTHER TIPS FOR PARENTS
Of course, we can avoid the standard taboos like tossing your baby in the air (causes whiplash) or allowing them to fall off the bed onto the floor (ouch!)
Research has shown that breast-fed babies tend to be better physically coordinated and even have higher IQs than bottle-fed children; the reason? Other than the fact that mother’s milk is more beneficial than formula, it is thought to be the alternating body position of the infant from side-to-side that helps develop nerve pathways essential for body control (coordination). When the child lies on her right side, the left eye, left arm, and leg are free to interact with mom, and vice-versa.
Alternating body positions in the crib can also be helpful, as children will tend to turn their head toward you. Placing their head at alternating ends will ensure that their neck is not always turning the same direction. Some researchers have said that infants who sleep on their stomachs may be a greater risk for S.I.D.S. (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) because of the stress placed on the neck in this position. Sleeping on our stomach is bad for kids and adults alike. I personally believe that there are other causative factors as well that contribute to SIDS, but that is for another article. It is important to keep the baby on his/her stomach when awake, whenever possible, in order to aid the development of their spinal muscles.
To summarize the guidelines for optimum spinal development in your child:
- Keep baby on their stomach when awake whenever possible.
- Keep baby off their stomach when sleeping (this goes for adults too!).
- Don’t teach your child to walk. Let them crawl as long as possible!
- Limited use of johnny jump-up is ok (still a poor substitute for crawling) but avoid all baby swings and walkers.
- Breastfeed if possible, or if bottle-feeding, hold the child in the same way you would if you were breastfeeding.
- Alternate body positions in the crib.
- Avoid throwing a baby in the air and other potentially traumatic activities before their spinal muscles are developed.
Please note that if your children have experienced a traumatic birth (prolonged labor, use of forceps or suction) or if they have experienced falls or other traumatic events, have them checked by your chiropractor. Watch for signs of spinal dysfunction: colic, irritability, frequent ear infections or colds, banging head on the floor, pulling on the neck, etc. If your child shows any of these signs, have them checked immediately by your chiropractor. All four of my own children have needed and benefitted from chiropractic care. It is safe and marvelously effective!
The tendency for a child to develop the abnormal curves of scoliosis can often be inherited genetically. However, there are lots of environmental factors that contribute as well. If you have older children, have them screened for scoliosis by a chiropractor or spine specialist, especially during the growth spurt, when there is the greatest potential for these abnormal curves to develop and worsen. Uneven shoulder height or hip height can be giveaway signs of abnormal spinal curvatures; however, an absence of these signs may not guarantee your child does not have scoliosis. Keep in mind also, that during these growing years is the period when abnormal curves can be most easily improved with proper chiropractic care.