If you’ve been around Baby Land long, you probably know exersaucers can be quite the source of controversy. Many people (particularly pediatric therapists) vehemently oppose their existence while others (exhausted caregivers) praise their invention. I believe it’s important to take a balanced approach to these sorts of issues because, let’s face it, we humans just don’t respond well to ultimatums telling us to “never” or “always” do something.
So, what’s the deal with exersaucers?
Exersaucers give parents and caregivers a break, and they’re fun for babies. They allow us to put our babies down in a place where they won’t roll away or get into mischief so we can take a shower, wash the dishes, change the laundry, or flop onto the couch in exhaustion. They also give babies a chance to try out new skills and sensations as they swat at toys, turn plastic pages, push buttons to activate lights and music, and rock and bounce themselves in their stationary play structure.
The story goes that exersaucers were developed in the 90’s as a response to all the injuries caused by baby walkers. Walkers allowed immobile, ground-level babies to suddently become mobile and upright, which resulted in HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of babies becoming injured by doing things like falling down stairs and reaching for hot stoves…a parent’s worst nightmare! Walkers also taught babies how to “walk” by using terrible biomechanics and movement patterns, and walker use actually ended up delaying babies’ abilities to independently walk. One particular baby company decided to go ahead and invent a product to be a safer alternative to walkers, and that was how they marketed it. In addition to safety, they also wanted their product to entertain babies while maybe teaching them a developmental skill or two. So what did they invent? The exersaucer.
Although the numbers show exersaucers have certainly served as a safe alternative to baby walkers over the past two decades, their presence in homes across the world have not come without criticism, particularly from the pediatric therapy community. Here’s why:
Poor posturing. When babies are placed in exersaucers, they have a tendency to shift into a position that tips their head back too far, their shoulders up too high, their shoulder blades pulled too far back, their hips pulled too far apart by a stiff piece of fabric, and their back too arched as their belly sways forward. Are you picturing this position? Go back through that first sentence and see if you can put yourself in that position. Uncomfortable, right?
Poor standing position. Exersaucers encourage babies to stand by locking out their knees in order to compensate for weakness because they’re placed in a standing position before they are ready for it. They also cause babies to bear weight on their toes instead of on their whole foot, which is known to contribute to the over-development of calf muscles and, if severe, can lead to toe walking.
Poor sense of balance control. Babies who spend time in exersaucers end up in a position where their center of gravity remains forward, thus interfering with their development of balance. Our bodies develop a sense of balance through the feedback given to us by receptors in our muscles and joints (called proprioceptors). When we lose our balance, these receptors send a message to our brain (which goes back to our body), telling us to adjust our position in order to avoid falling. This message is non-existent when placed in an exersaucer. Babies also have difficulty developing a sense of balance control while in exersaucers because they can’t see their feet, which is something they need to be able to do when learning how to stand and balance independently.
Decreased exploration of the environment. Active exploration of the environment allows babies to develop their cognitive and motor skills, especially when trying to obtain objects out of their reach. This encourages rolling, scooting, crawling, and pulling to stand. Although exersaucers include many toys providing sensory stimulation and opportunities for problem solving, all toys are set right in front of them, thus depriving them of opportunities to challenge their gross motor development in order to explore their environment.
Decreased interaction. Raise your hand if you’ve ever put baby in an exersaucer and then gone somewhere else to get something done, such as washing dishes, cooking dinner, changing laundry, or working on the computer. Yeah, we’ve all done it. It’s tempting and easy. But babies need that human interaction more than anything else.in the first year of life
Risk of overuse. Oh how easy it is for grown-ups to set a baby in an exersaucer, set out to do a task and, next thing you know, it’s been 45 minutes or more. Not only is it easy to lose track of time while baby is in there, but it’s also easy to justify their being in the saucer for a long time, “because they’re learning.” Um, no. Not a good reason. Once you start to use it regularly, it will become easier and easier to have it become your first resort rather than your last.
Despite these strikes against them, I believe exersaucers will be around for a long time because parents and babies love them. Rather than “outlawing” them, I believe it’s more beneficial (and realistic) to provide suggestions for how adults can modify the use of these devices so they’re better for babies because, let’s face, who responds well to ultimatums?
You can modify the way you use exersaucers to make them safer and better for babies. Here are some suggestions:
If baby is able to sit with minimal support (typically around 4-6 months), play with her while she’s seated on the outside edge of the saucer rather than placing her in it. This allows her to play with the toys and practice supported sitting, which will be more appropriate for her at this age than actually being placed in it.
Wait to place baby in exersaucer until he can sit independently, without having to use arms for balance (typically around 6 or 7 months). Most play saucers state they can be used with infants as young as 4 months. But waiting until they are older and can sit very well on their own will ensure they have adequate trunk strength and possibly decrease their tendency to assume the poor posture mentioned earlier.
Detach toys from exersaucer and allow baby to play with them on the floor if she is not yet sitting independently. This may not apply to all brands, but if it does, go for it! This will allow him to get down on the floor as he continues to develop motor skills and explore the environment while still being able to play with the great toys that came with the saucer.
Place a pillow under baby’s feet so she’s not totally flat-footed or tippie-toed. We don’t want to promote either position. Just keep an eye on her feet to make sure she’s not standing with them in an abnormal position, like ankles rolled over or toes tucked under.
Limit the amount of rocking baby can perform while in saucer by using stabilizing legs provided. Exersaucers give babies the opportunity to bounce and rock, putting a smile on their (and their caregivers’) face. However, this rocking can carry over to other contexts where it is unsafe or uncalled for (e.g., sitting on the floor and tipping backward, sitting in baby bath and tipping forward, sitting in high chair). Trust me, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Many saucers include stabilizing legs that fold down to limit rocking, especially for older babies who can really get them going like a carnival ride at the county fair!
If baby is learning to stand while holding on to a chest-high surface (generally between 6-10 months), play with him while he’s standing and holding onto the outside of the saucer. Of course, you’ll need to closely supervise him to ensure he doesn’t lose his balance and topple over. But this is a great way to still play with the fun toys while practicing a new motor skill he can’t do if he’s actually in the saucer.
Interact with baby while in exersaucer. I know, I know, the point of using this thing is to give you a break from baby responsibilities while you get stuff done. But don’t just put her in there and then turn your back. Even if you’re totally engrossed in folding laundry (exciting stuff, I know), you can still talk to her about what she’s doing and praise her when she figures out how to activate new buttons and dealy-bobs.
Limit use to 15 minutes TOTAL per day. This really should be a once-a-day activity if you’re going to use it. Pick one 15-minute chore or a few short tasks during the day that will necessitate the use of the exersaucer. Maybe it’s preparing a meal, going downstairs to change the laundry, taking a shower, or taking a much-needed 15-minute break from the baby (don’t pretend like you’ve never needed it…we all do). Set a timer because, let me assure you, you WILL lose track of time, especially if baby is having a good time in there.
Give baby plenty of time to play on the floor during the day. Motor skills develop from experience and practice, and the best place for babies to get this practice is on the floor! They need time on their tummy, back, both sides, sitting on their bottom, and rocking on hands and knees in order to build skills toward rolling, crawling, and walking.
To see some of these suggestions in action, click here!
So there you have it. A balanced look at the good, the bad, and the better in the world of exersaucers. If you’re interested in learning more about exersaucer use and how to help children develop motor skills in their early years, check out the book Why Motor Skills Matter: Improve Your Child’s Physical Development to Enhance Learning and Self-Esteem, by Tara Losquadro Liddle. She’s a pediatric physical therapist with great information, practical tips for promoting kids’ motor development, and an easy-to-understand writing style.
What has your experience been with exersaucer use, and what guidelines have you used to make it fun and safe for baby?
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*Note: In case you were wondering…yes, we own an exersaucer. I grabbed it for cheap off of Craigslist when baby boy was about 6 months old because I wanted its age-appropriate toys (spinners, plastic pages, peek-a-boo toy). I also wanted to be able to get my hands on it and experiment with it since parents frequently ask me about baby equipment such as this. I’m grateful for the play skills my baby learned by playing with the saucer’s toys because, when we first got it, he was only interested in trying to eat toys. But with the saucer toys secured to the plastic frame while he sat around the edge of it, he was forced to use his hands to play with them rather than his mouth…what a concept! My hope is that our experience with the exersaucer will be helpful for others who have questions about it in the future. Make sense?
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