As a new parent with a Down syndrome baby, you are probably already aware of the physical and medical challenges associated with the condition. The most noticeable and common challenges are low muscle tone, little motor control, gastrointestinal problems, orthopedic Problems, ear, nose, and throat problems, and eye problems. Caring for your baby – any baby – is quite a challenge. When the baby has Down syndrome and special needs, the tasks become more complicated. Doing baby yoga with your Down syndrome baby can assist in uncomplicating some of these tasks, sooth some of the pain, strengthen the body, heart, and mind which will lead to an uncomplicated independent future.
Exercise is critical to children with Down syndrome and the perfect start to their healthy future can start with yoga as a baby. It can break the vicious cycle of low muscle tone leading to inactivity and obesity. Because low muscle tone requires your baby to work harder to move, you need to take an active role in monitoring her movements and motivating her to move around. A certified Baby Yoga Instructor can get you and your baby started on a specialized yoga program that will meet the needs of your baby and promote development. Strengthening muscles, improving coordination, and learning balance all can help tremendously in many areas of development.
Here are a few examples of how certain baby yoga moves can assist with your baby’s physical and medical conditions (these exercises are for babies from 1 month to walking):
A) With low muscle tone your baby doesn’t feel as tightly bundled together as other babies. She feels heavier because she isn’t doing much of the work holding her own arms and legs and lets them dangle more. The following baby yoga movements corresponds to the core of Hatha yoga, which aims to open the hip and knee joints in order to tone the deeper muscles of the body around the base of the spine. This both strengthens and refines the life force in the individual.
- 1) Pedal Stretch – Take your baby’s legs just under the knees and bend them open, slightly wider than the hip. Move the legs alternately toward the rib cage and stretch toward you, in a slow pedaling action
- 2) Half Lotus – Holding your baby’s feet, bring the left foot toward the right hip in a half lotus position. Press the heel on the side whenever it reaches easily. Release and do the same with the right foot.
- 3) Rolling Knees — Holding your baby’s bent knees together, roll them in a circle, to the left and then to the right as close to the body as possible. Start with a small movement increasing it as your baby gets used to it.
- 4) Push and Counter-push – Gently but firmly press the palms of your hands against the soles of your baby’s feel. Release and repeat. She may resist and push against your hand. When you feel her responding, increase the pressure. You may also press on one foot at a time which will encourage kicking.
- 5) Diagonal Stretch – (take care that the back of his neck and head stay on the floor for this exercise and that his spine is extended). Take hold of your baby’s right foot and left hand and bring them together, then open them out again diagonally, repeating a few times. At first open without stretching to get your baby accustomed to the movements, then stretch out both her arm and leg. Repeat the same on the other side.
- 6) Brain Gym Circles – This is more complex diagonal stretch that not only tones the back muscles but also promotes good co-ordination of the limbs. Holding your baby’s opposite hand and leg in each hand, open them out slightly and circle them both inward a few times and the circle them both outward. Finally, circle his arm and leg in different directions and reverse the movement. This will test your coordination too!
B) Babies have little motor control at birth but soon begin to hold up their heads, roll over, sit, crawl, and walk. They also learn to reach out to grasp a rattle and steadily increase their skill at using hands, arms, and fingers for reaching, grasping, and for fine motor control. Babies and children with Down syndrome go through the same steps in motor development, but it takes longer for them to develop strength and motor control. Both need practice to develop. These yoga exercises done with your baby will help jumpstart that development.
- 1) Cradling seat hold – This pose will help strengthen your baby’s spine from sacrum to neck, and coordinate the back muscles. Use your strongest hand as a base under your baby’s bottom to make a seat. Stand, kneel or sit with your strong hand in front of him. Support his head with your other hand, making sure that you also support the base of the neck. This is the upright seat hold with your new baby. When you feel comfortable, place your open strong hand under the baby’s bottom and lift him gently. He is now balancing on your hand, supported by your other hand behind his head. Practice getting your baby as upright as possible and then gradually lessening your support of his head keeping your hand in position. Hold the position for a moment before holding your baby close again.
- 2) Rolling Baby – Slide your baby’s chest on your upper hand and hold her upper arm firmly between thumb and forefinger. Now place your strong hand, the “seat hand”, between your baby’s legs to support his abdomen. Move her face down keeping his head aligned with her spine. To give her head additional support, rest it on your forearm. Then roll her up and inward to face you and give her a kiss, then roll her out again face-down. Try this first while sitting before doing it standing up. Start with a very gentle roll and, if your baby enjoys it, increase it gradually to a bigger movement.
- 3) Mini-Cobra (for babies 3 months and older) – For this classic yoga posture with your baby, sit with your back supported and your legs bent, and your baby lying on her stomach in prone along your thighs with her feet against your body and her head on or just beyond your knees. This is nice for smaller babies and makes your actions symmetrical. Alternatively, sit with her lying across one or both thighs. This is more conducive to a full relaxation of her back after stretching but makes your actions asymmetrical. With your thumbs just below your baby’s shoulder blades, hold her shoulders and very gently bring them up. Using your thumbs as levers. It does not matter whether your baby lifts her head or not at this stage. Relax your hands repeat two or three times.
- 4) Front Crawl Stretch – For this stretch, lie your baby prone and transverse on your legs, with her head resting on one of your thighs. Make it as active or as gentle as your baby requires it. Hold her arms and wrists and extend one arm up to the side and the other down alternately in a slow stretching movement.
- 5) Ball Games – (for babies already sitting) Sit in a circle, or if there are two adults, make a diamond shape with your legs to enclose him. Roll a soft ball back and forth between the two babies and he will enjoy watching you play with them at first. Soon he will be able to grab and hold them as her eye-to-hand coordination is stimulated through watching and getting involved.
C) A common condition in infants and children with Down syndrome is gastroesophageal reflux meaning movement of stomach contents back up the esophagus. The following exercises will not be a cure for GER but will assist in relieving potential instances of GER.
- 1) Abdominal Circles – This massage stimulates a sensitive area in most babies. Place one hand flat on your baby’s abdomen and take a full breath inhaling and exhaling. Then use a clockwise motion for circular stroking around your baby’s navel with your hand. Do this several times. The take that same hand and apply gentle pressure in areas around the belly button in a clockwise motion.
- 2) Inversions – This is a beginning upside down pose for young babies that cannot hold up their head. This pose elongates the spine and helps clear the lungs of mucus and stimulates the whole nervous system. In a sitting position with your legs straight out in front of you, place your baby on his stomach with his head facing your pelvis and his feet are toward your knees. Then lift your knees so that your feet are flat on the ground and your baby is nearly upside down. Slowly lower your legs and repeat several times.
- 3) Lifting Upside Down – (for babies from 8 weeks) This exercise will let your baby receive all the benefits of a headstand, one of the main pose of Hatha yoga, which elongates the spine, increases the circulation to the brain, helps clear the lungs, and stimulate the whole nervous system. Sit on the floor or bed or an upright chair. Talk to your baby and make good eye contact and then lay her prone on your lap. Take her calves rather than her ankles or feet, firmly in both hands and in a sweeping movement lift her upside down with her back to you. To bring her down, prepare to lay her carefully either face-down or face-up on your lap. Land your baby on her shoulders or on her chest on your thigh. Then drop her feet gently until she lies in prone or on her back across your legs.
D) Constipation, a very common problem in babies with Down syndrome, is also believed to be caused by decreased muscle tone of the intestinal tract. In many babies with Down syndrome, the intestine moves stool along the gastrointestinal tract more slowly, allowing extra water from the stool to be reabsorbed by the colon. The following baby yoga exercises will assist in moving the stool along at more normal rate.
- 1) Knees to Chest – This posture stimulates the digestive system, and can produce a bowel movement or burp. Take your baby’s legs just under the knees and bend them open, slightly wider than the hips. Press your baby’s knees firmly on the sides of his abdomen, just under his rib cage. Release the pressure and repeat two or three times, taking your time and relaxing completely between without lifting your hand. If your baby seems uncomfortable, and his abdomen feels hard, massage it gently and try the movement again later.
- 2) Rolling Knees – Holding your baby baby’s bent knees together, roll them in a circle, to the left and then to the right, as close to the body as possible. Start with small movements increasing as your baby gets used to it.
E) Children with Down syndrome have smaller midfacial areas, including nasal and sinus passages, which may contribute to frequent colds and sinus infections. Some children with Down syndrome also have a decreased immune response to bacteria and viruses, which also plays a role in the increased number of upper respiratory infections. There are a few massages and yoga exercises that will make your little one feel better when they are sick by opening up the chest, sinuses, nose and ears and expand her breathing. At the same time if performed on a regular basis it may help decrease the frequency of infections.
- 1) Facial Massage – With your hands on the sides of your baby’s face, stroke over the eyebrows with your thumbs from the bridge of the nose, and down around the cheeks and jaw. This will open up the nasal passages. Then with your forefinger and middle finger massage in small circles around the ears to open up the ear passages.
- 2) Chest Massage – With both hands, stroke the chest from the center out to the sides, and then back to the center in a flowing circular motion. Then, with one hand, stroke diagonally across the chest to each shoulder, then back to center down the chest.
- 3) Out Stretch – With your baby on his back in front of you, hold his arms at the wrists as you inhale. Exhaling slowly, stretch them out to his sides until you begin to feel resistance. Bring back his arms, crossing them over each other twice on his chest, changing arms in the cross the second time. Repeat two or three times.
- 4) Circle Stretch – In the same position as for the out stretch, hold your baby’s wrists and gently bring them up over her face and open them out in a wide circle before coming back to center again. Be attentive to the flow of your breath with the movement. If your baby is happy to have her arms fully open, reverse the circling movement, lowering her arms before circling them up and bring them back to center on her chest.
F) The alignment of the movement of the eyes is what enables us to see one image from two eyes as well as to use depth perception. When the eyes do not move together, this is referred to as strabismus. Strabismus is common in babies with Down syndrome. When strabismus is present, young children will see double images. Over time their brains learn to suppress the images from the deviating eye so they can see a single image. Early treatment of strabismus involves patching the stronger eye to blur its vision which causes the child to use his weaker eye and strengthen its vision. There are yoga exercises that will assist in strengthening the eye as well as assist with the vestibular system as a whole.
- 1) See Saw – With your baby on your lap, use one hand to support her chest on the front and the other to support the back of her head to create a see-saw movement of her body between your hands. Progress from a small to a wider movement, and allow more and more space between your hands and her body. If she enjoys this, let her fall forward and backward and catch her just when it feels right.
- 2) Rolling – With your knees slightly bent at the same height, roll them anticlockwise if your baby’s head is to your left, clockwise if it is to your right. Straighten your legs as they reach the floor in a ‘roller-coaster’-like movement, which will also tone your abdominal muscles. After a short rest, continue rolling this time down and back up your legs. With your legs flat on the floor, place your hands on your baby and push him gently so that he rolls over along your legs. Then ‘unroll’ him back to the start position.
- 3) Mini-drop – Do this with your baby in the seat hold such as in description B1 “cradle seat hold”, or with your baby facing away from you and your weaker hand as a safe support across your baby’s chest. Lift him gently with your seat hand and then let your arm drop a little, while continuing to hold him in the same way. Repeat once or twice if your baby enjoys it. Move slowly avoiding any shaking and jostling.
- 4) Mini–swing – All babies enjoy rocking movements, and benefit from them through their eye control, back strength, head righting, and balance. In the same position, swing your baby very gently from side to side in a rocking movement, gradually increasing it to the liking of your baby.
If your child has a medical condition such as a congenital heart defect or Atlantoaxial Instability, contact your child’s physician for recommendations on appropriate activity level.
Children with Down syndrome who move with correct posture, coordination, and position eventually can do more of the things other children can do, like climb, run, and play. Your hard work with your baby and child will be rewarded. Just remember that your baby is first and foremost a child. With your tenacity, encouragement, and most of all your love, that child is going to blossom.
Thank you for Reading!
Article by: Heather Hernandez-Reja, Founder and Instructor of Zen Baby Yoga, Encinitas, CA http://www.zenbabyyoga.org
**Thank you for my great references: Babies with Down Syndrome—An new parents guide—Third addition edited by Susan J. Skallerup; Baby Yoga by Francoise Barbira Freedman