Taking back childhood: staying off the slippery slope to WALL-E land

Claire McCarthy,MD

If you haven’t seen the movie “WALL-E”, you should.

Not just because the robot hero (named WALL-E) is wonderful, but also because the movie is a great cautionary tale.

The movie takes place in the future. Mankind has polluted earth so badly that it is uninhabitable. Everyone took off in a spaceship that now roams space, leaving only robots (like WALL-E) behind. The people spend their days sitting in moving seats, watching huge TV’s, and eating super-sized portions of junk food. They are all incredibly fat, and between their size and the fact that they sit in the moving seats all day, they can barely walk (I know this sounds awful, but it’s actually a happy movie.)

I thought about this recently when I read an article about the problems babies and toddlers are having because they aren’t getting enough “tummy time.” In part, this is an offshoot of a good thing; because of the “Back to Sleep” campaign, which has cut the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome down by half, babies are spending more time on their backs.

The humans in Wall-E consume everything—including TV—in mass quantities while getting shuttled around on movable chairs.

But the other part of the campaign, “Tummy to Play”, hasn’t taken the same hold with the general public. More and more babies spend their days in infant seats or swings. There are infant seats that move right from the car seat to the stroller to the house, so that Baby never has to be picked up. There is an appealing efficiency to this, especially if Baby is sleeping. It’s great for multitasking parents, as it’s much easier to get things done when Baby is happy and you have your hands free.

However, it’s not great for Baby. In my practice I’m seeing much more “positional plagiocephaly,” which is the medical term for flattening of the back of the head—from either laying on the back or having the back of the head pressed against a seat all day. And tummy time is crucial for gaining strength in the neck, arms and trunk—and for learning to crawl, and for interacting with the world. According to the article I was reading, more and more children are showing motor delays and other problems that experts trace back to not having time on their tummies.

This is, I think, part of a bigger, scarier change in childhood. Parents and caregivers are holding babies less. There is less getting down on the floor to play. There is less play in general. Children are spending hours each day in front of screens, whether it’s TV, video games or computers—and we’re seeing obesity and behavioral problems caused by this. Add the supersize portions of junk food (which is already going on in plenty of families), and it won’t take many generations for us to get like the people on the spaceship in WALL-E (and given what we’re doing to the earth, we may just end up on a spaceship).

We need to make changes, and we need to start now.

My middle daughter, Elsa, hated strollers and infant seats—if we tried either one, she’d scream. So we put her in a sling. And as someone who has taken multitasking to places it shouldn’t go, I have to say, the sling was pretty easy, both in and out of the house. I had my hands free, and she was happy. The next two babies went right into the sling.

Getting down to baby's level is a great way to bond—and strengthen developing neck, arm and trunk muscles.

It is a matter of rethinking our paradigms. Turns out it can be really fun to play on the floor with a baby (if there are older siblings around, get them involved in Baby Floor Fun). And when you turn off the TV and computer, it can actually make life around the house more peaceful and interesting—and lead to more conversations (and interactions in general) with your children.

I’m not saying that it will all be easy. It can take a while for a baby to get used to being on his tummy. Crankiness will likely ensue when children used to watching TV get it turned off—or when children used to junk food don’t get it. But it’s worth it. It’s about their health and their future.

Let’s make sure that WALL-E stays what it is: a fictional movie. Let’s not let it become reality.

  • http://twitter.com/60secondparent Sixty Second Parent

    This is a great article that brings up some interesting issues about parenting these days. I too worry about babies getting real play and a chance to practice using their muscles.

  • RandomHandprints

    what an important article. too often i think parents (including me) go for the easier way -whether it’s the infant seat instead of holding a baby or junk food instead of cooking. thanks for the reminder that we don’t want to end up like wall-e world!

  • Singandtwirl

    I’ve been working with Babies for 16 years (not counting my own!) and have been telling moms to beware the “bucket baby”…(in carseats all day!) Here’s 2 more good reasons: If they are not held by you they are missing vestibular stimulation (important in processing sensory information) and they are missing out on social interactions by not being close enough to see the facial expressions and interactions between adults! They really are supposed to be studying that at this young age!

    Need more ideas? Go to a Kindermusik class (we start with newborn!). It’s fun and very good work for those babies.

  • diane

    It makes me sad to think that parents now have to be told to play with their babies and hold them. Something so natural. Seems to me that we are focusing so much on controlling other aspects of our lives that we are missing some of the most joyful moments. As a parent who has lost an adolescent child I am so grateful that I spent so much time engaging with my children….new parents should think about what memories they would look back upon if they lost their child and make good choices. Play, laugh and love for these really are the best moments in life.

  • First5LA

    Wonderful point about the “positional placiography” syndrome. It is so important to start developing your child’s strength and motor skills as early as possible, for numerous reasons.