There are any number of products on the market designed to hold infants, such as bouncers, infant swings and support cushions, as well as those that are made to help babies in their physical development, such as floor seats, jumpers and baby walkers.
While these devices can be useful, enjoyable and even beneficial for short periods, problems arise when babies are left in them for extended periods each day.
Container baby syndrome (CBS) is one of the most significant issues that results from too much time spent in supportive devices, even including prams and strollers, highchairs and car seats.
While these containers often seem to be helping babies to work on essential skills like sitting up and walking, they actually prevent them from building up the muscles required to support themselves and will end up hindering their development rather than helping it.
This can result in significant delays in reaching motor developmental milestones, and can cause physical impairments such as flat spots on the head and tightness in the neck from an inability to move the head and neck freely, known as plagiocephaly and torticollis.
Extreme cases can even lead to cognitive and social delays. Collectively, these issues make up what is known as container baby syndrome.
As a carer of young children, and infants particularly, it is essential to know how to avoid CBS, and also how to help treat the effects of the syndrome in those already afflicted by it.
First you need to know what to look for.
Be aware of the signs of CBS
If you notice any of the following problems in a baby in your care, it is advisable that you raise the issue with your director, and then with the parents of the affected child:
- Delayed motor-development milestones
- Flat spots on the head
- Inability to move the head and neck freely
- Lack of independent movement including kicking, rolling and sitting up, depending on age
- Unwillingness to tolerate tummy time
Ways to treat CBS
Once you have identified children suffering from CBS, work with their parents to create a treatment plan, to reverse the effects of the syndrome and allow the child to develop naturally.
While in care, it can be best for babies to not be placed in containers of any kind, excluding cots for sleeping, of course. Instead, provide plenty of opportunities for free movement and play during floor time, and involve babies in play during periods of tummy time.
Encourage babies to move their heads, legs and arms while lying on the floor whether on their back or their tummy. Hanging mobiles or activity gyms with dangling toys can be great tools to encourage head and arm movement while babies are lying on their backs.
You can also try clicking, clapping or making other soft noises around the baby, to encourage them to turn in different directions as they follow the sounds and movements.
During tummy time, having toys just out of reach can encourage babies to reach and try to move toward them. Rolling toy cars or bigger trucks in a semicircle in front of a baby during tummy time will also tempt them to move their head from side to side as they follow the movement.
If a baby is particularly intolerant of spending time on their tummy, give them several short sessions (no more than a few minutes at a time) throughout the day, lie down on the floor face-to-face and play with them, and make sure they have something to entertain and distract them from their discomfort.
You can also assist babies to perform gentle movements and stretches to help loosen tight muscles in necks and shoulders in cases of torticollis (consult a doctor or physical therapist to find out how to perform these stretches) and encourage movement with hands-on interaction such as holding the baby’s hands and waving their arms around in play.
Holding a baby’s feet while they’re on their back and moving their legs in a cycling motion can also encourage kicking and free movement of the legs and hips.
How to avoid causing CBS
It may seem obvious, but the best way to avoid CBS is to avoid over-utilising baby carrying and support devices. For parents, safety items such as car seats or capsules are essential for a baby’s safety, and prams and strollers are useful and convenient for infant transport.
However, once a baby is in your care, these items are usually no longer necessary. So, if a child is left in a capsule or pram when dropped off at your service, the first thing you should do is remove them and allow them to move freely and naturally within their age and developmental limitations.
Babies should be carried from place to place in a carer’s arms, as well as given lots of cuddle time to assist in both their physical, emotional and social development. Plenty of floor time in a safe play space is essential for free movement, muscle development and sensory development in infants, and several short sessions of tummy time throughout the day will develop core strength and neck strength.
If containers do need to be used, for example highchairs during meals, time should be limited to 15 to 20 minutes when possible.
For children who are already affected by CBS, it is important for educators to work in consultation with parents and a physician to create the best outcome for their recovery and future development, but by far the best solution is prevention in the first place.
By allowing babies to move naturally and focusing on supporting them in arms when necessary, rather than in devices, they are more likely to develop normally and avoid CBS altogether.