No stroller potatoes! Why babies need active play every day

Baby’s first step is a big moment for every parent—and the other important adults in a baby’s life too! Whether it happens with Mom or Dad, at Grandpa and Grandma’s, or at daycare, it’s a milestone we all celebrate with cheers, excited text messages to family and friends, and, when we can, photos or video to share evidence of baby’s newest feat.

The excitement is deserved. Learning to move is hard work for baby! Just as learning to read builds on language skills developed from the moment a baby can hear and interact with you, developing physical literacy begins well before baby’s first steps.

When a baby cries to be picked up, it’s not just for the emotional support; it’s also to experience motion, to feel what it is to be held, and to better observe how their caregivers and other people around them move their bodies.

Even when a newborn may not appear to be doing much more than sleep, eat, and poop, the seemingly random waving of arms and legs is gradually building the child’s muscle strength and coordination. That’s why it’s so important that we offer babies lots of time to move their bodies freely, unrestrained by car seats, swings, or bouncy chairs.


Related read: 7 tips to make tummy time more fun


How much active play time does baby need?

According to the Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines for the early years, babies and toddlers should not be restrained in strollers, seats, or other baby-holding devices for more than an hour at a time.

Even if your baby seems content to sit, don’t let him or her be a stroller potato! When on outings, look for opportunities to put baby down on a blanket in the grass, sit on your lap, cruise, or crawl around outside, or take breaks to let them toddle and explore between stroller sessions. It’s also best to encourage older children to walk (or run!) as much as possible.

When it comes to physical activity, the more the better, but here are the minimum recommendations for daily physical activity for kids 0-4:

  • Infants who aren’t yet mobile need a minimum of 30 minutes of tummy time spread throughout the day.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers should get a minimum of three hours of physical activity spread out throughout the day.

Screen time tends to get in the way of active play, so parents should pay close attention to the amount of time children spend with the TV or tablets.

  • Screen time is not recommended at all for babies under two years old
  • For toddlers, sedentary screen time is not recommended, however many toddlers enjoy dancing or acting out movements they see on TV.
  • For children aged 2 to 4, limit sedentary screen time to less than one hour per day.

But my baby hates tummy time!

Tummy time is hard for infants as it requires a lot of muscle simply to lift the head. Many newborn babies tire quickly of tummy time, so if yours cries to be picked up after a few minutes, don’t fret! Try lying on your tummy next time, so that you are face-to-face with your baby, talking or singing to your baby, or lying tummy-to-tummy with your baby on top of you (don’t be surprised if the little one falls asleep — mamas and daddies make the comfiest beds!). If you have older children, or if other kids are around, encourage them to play with or near the baby during tummy time and floor time.


Related read: How to create a play zone that inspires baby to move


Little movements add up

These days you can find all kinds of bouncy chairs, exersaucers, and other baby-holding devices. Yet the very best thing you can do to help your baby’s healthy development is to make sure he or she spends as much time as possible freely moving around in a safe environment. It takes time for babies to coordinate muscles and develop the balance they need to be ready to sit, crawl, walk, and climb.

While swings, seats, and exersaucers are convenient for parents—and even necessary when you need two hands for other household tasks—the best thing for your baby is to be free to move at will, within the limits of his or her abilities, in an environment that is both stimulating and safe.

“Even in infancy it’s important for children to move freely. These days, infants are spending more and more sedentary time in car seats, high chairs, strollers—and perhaps we haven’t thought enough about the developmental ramifications of these types of restrictive devices.”

Dr. Sara Benjamin-Neelon, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Every little movement your infant makes adds up to big gains. It’s not just tummy time that’s good for babies. There’s also value in floor time, cuddle time, rocking time, and dance-with-baby time. There’s no rush or reason to hurry your baby to sit or stand, and no benefit to propping them in these positions or trying to “teach” these skills before baby is ready.

When given lots of time and space to move at their own pace, your baby will naturally develop the skills, confidence and love of movement to become ready to run, jump, hop, skip, and more.

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