As adults I know most of us have experienced tight muscles because we don’t stretch as often as we should, or there are those that just tend to have tighter muscles than most. For example, one of my friends on the soccer team had the tightest hamstrings regardless of how much she stretched. Well, believe it or not kids, even babies, can have tight muscles as well.
Now all babies actually have some muscle tightness when they are born, the reason being that they’ve been cramped up in the womb for several months. With a few techniques, they don’t even realize they are doing, this problem easily resolves as they grow. For instance, Tummy Time helps to stretch out their hip flexors (i.e. the front of their hip). Making sure your baby spends time on their belly, and not always in a car seat, bouncy or swing, will make sure they have adequately stretched hip flexors. When they start to put their feet in their mouth, this is their way of stretching out their hamstrings. Encouraging your child to do this is a good thing. Not only does it stretch out their hamstrings, it also helps them with body awareness and exploration.
For some infants and children, they have abnormal muscle tone, meaning they are too stiff (hypertonia) or they are too floppy (hypotonia). Tight muscles is generally associated with hypertonia because the muscles are already stiffer, however children with hypotonia are at just as much risk for developing tight muscles. Tight muscles can limit your child’s ability to do the things they want to do.
Areas to look out for muscle tightness in a child with hypotonia are their hamstrings, low back, the outside of their hips (due to the tendency of their legs to turn out while lying on their back), and their trunk rotators. Its a common misconception that because children with low tone are floppy that tightness will not be an issue. The reality is that they have a harder time holding themselves in a proper alignment and over time their muscles get tight.
When a child has tight hamstrings it is harder for them to sit cross legged. You may notice that they want to kneel more often, this just encourages the tight hamstrings. Also they have a hard time sitting with their feet out in front of them. They either need to bend their knees or lean back on their arms. It can also make it hard to climb ladders or really high steps which could delay their independence on the playground.
Tight calf muscles can make it challenging for your child to squat down while playing with toys. It will also make it harder for them to go up and down stairs, although they will find ways to compensate, usually by turning their feet out to the side, or their feet could develop increased pronation (see ‘Does your child need the perfect shoe?‘).
The reality is that tight muscles do happen, as I said, most adults have probably experienced them at some point in their life, however, why start your child off with tight muscles? Tight muscles just lead to limitations in mobility, changes in posture (or abnormal posture) and potential for injury as we get older. By keeping a watch out early you can prevent tight muscles down the line! While your child is growing and learning new skills, lets not make it harder for them!
Check back next week for some Stretching Strategies.