Exersaucers, Swings and Jumpers— A help or hindrance to development?
By Deanie Barth, MSPT Physical Therapist
Exersaucers, swings and jumpers are a constant source of controversy among parents, physicians and therapists. The initial source of controversy stemmed from safety issues. The original “exersaucer” was basically an activity table on wheels. Infants had a great time as they cruised around open areas retrieving objects across the room and enjoyed a new found sense of freedom. Unfortunately, these were extremely dangerous - even the most diligent parents might turn their heads for a moment and children went down stairs, into pools or tipped over on uneven surfaces. While the more contemporary models are certainly safer than the older ones, they still should be used with adult supervision.
This article will describe the exersaucer, swing and jumper and list some pros and cons and personal opinions I have as a physical therapist. One thing they all have in common is that they should only be used in moderation (I recommend no more than 15 minutes at a time) and with constant supervision.
The modern exersaucer is essentially an activity table in which your child can sit, stand with assistance and bounce. The activity table can be helpful in developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills thus make sure that items on the activity table have various colors, shapes and textures to stimulate. However, make sure it has a limited number of such objects so your child will want to turn his body and shift his weight to explore each one. When seated in the exersaucer, the infant’s legs are typically externally rotated and slightly extended if they are leaning forward. While infants enjoy this position as it enables them to move around freely, it is not a movement pattern that is conducive to learning to walk. Encouraging your child to stand while leaning on their arms rather than leaning with their trunk against the tray will help to strengthen legs and promote balance, however, achieving the important milestones of sitting, standing, cruising and walking, are best accomplished by playing with your child in a natural environment.
Jumpers usually sit within a door frame or a manufactured frame. The child sits in a sling and has the ability to use his legs to jump up and down which provides long periods of fun and entertainment. Weight bearing and contracting muscles against resistance (the floor) can help to develop muscles strength, however, the typical position within the sling seat is once again with hips externally rotated and slightly extended. The child will also tend to land and push off from their toes rather than with a flat foot. The concern here is that not only does it promote a movement pattern that will not facilitate walking, but it may promote walking on the toes as well. As with the exersaucer, if used for short spans of time, the jumper will provide lots of fun for a child, but little gross motor development.
Swings are typically used with the younger infant. If you choose to use a swing, one with an activity tray is recommended. Once again it should contain an assortment of shapes, textures and colors to promote batting, grasping and retrieving. While in a swing, a child typically semi-reclines with their legs dangling. While this may be emotionally soothing there is absolutely no gross motor benefit to this position. Leaning forward to play with the activity will help with fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, but essentially it’s greater purpose serves as a babysitter for the parent.
When used properly exersaucers, jumpers and swings clearly provide brief, but much needed periods of respite for a parent, and they may even help with fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. However, If used for long periods of time, there is a significant chance they will impede the proper development of gross motor skills. So, remember, don’t use them for more than 15-20 minutes at a time, and never allow them to be used unsupervised, even for a second.
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