Swing Low

This morning’s conversation between me and The Husband:

KB: Someone wants to know about Nursemaid’s Elbow.

TH: What’s Nursemaid’s Elbow?

KB: It’s an injury to the elbow — one of the bones in the lower arm dislocates in little kids when you pick them up or swing them around, etc.

TH: Why do they call it Nursemaid’s Elbow? It would seem that a Nursemaid’s injury would come from a cow-nursemaid incident. Like being kicked.

KB: What are you talking about?

TH: Because nursemaids are getting the milk from the cows.

KB: No, nursemaids are “maids” in the “nursery” — they were probably the ones picking up the kids the most back in the Victorian days.

TH: No, I’m pretty sure they milk cows.

(Scramble for laptops and wikipedia — see Nursemaids.)

KB: Well, I’m obviously going to have to blog about this now, mostly because of this conversation.

TH: Oh. I probably meant Dairymaid.

KB: Yah, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.

This is not the first time someone has asked me about this injury as it’s not uncommon, which would seem to contraindicate some of the upper body movement recommendations (hanging and swinging) made in other posts. It probably came up today because this weekend I posted a picture of our recent additions to our indoor monkey bars — rings and a rope — for the little man of the house, who is just now 17 months old.

To further explain the injury/paradigm, you can check out this graphic:

So, the question is, can a child’s arms safely support their own weight or not? The answer is it depends on what “a” kid has been doing for all the days of their life.

I realize that MOST people don’t have degrees in Exercise Science but I also think that MOST people understand the basic exercise/adaptation rules. In order to get stronger, you have to use your body. And when you start, you begin with a small load and slowly adapt (get stronger) and continue to slowly increase the load as you slowly improve physiologically. You know that, right? Or, are you the person who starts your New Year’s fitness resolution off with a four-mile run, a mean stress fracture followed by a seven-month recuperation? Cuz that happens a lot too.

Anyhow, I truly believe that you *get* how adaptation works. You just need to apply this concept of appropriate loads and adaptation time.

To consider: What have most kids under age 3 (or age 1) been doing in terms of their upper body strength thus far? Probably not that much. They’ve been sitting, lying down, getting the ever-coveted tummy-time, being slinged and slunged and stroller-ed and transported and maybe they’ve started to crawl or walk. But none of these things aid in developing the upper body strength-to-weight ration. In other places in the world, where people have to move a lot more every day, kids (and babies) are responsible for pulling their own weight. Literally. Which is why, in addition to the walking reflex I wrote about last week, there is also the gripping reflex. Why do babies come with the gripping reflex? Who knows for sure, but if you cultivate it, you get babies who can pull themselves up, hang on to hair, etc. pretty early on.

So a kid can hang and swing safely, or not? It depends. A 2 or 3-year old who’s never hung from his own arms doesn’t have any muscle to support his body weight, which then transfers this weight load to the ligaments — which are not designed to withstand it (sliiiiip). But if you take a 2 or 3-year old who has been doing this sort of thing since being a few weeks (and 9 pounds) old, then watch out! They quickly become little circus performers. And, P.S. You can apply this entire post to adults as well.

What’s this all mean? It means Be Smart. If you’ve never asked your kid’s arms to hold her entire body weight before, then grabbing her and accelerating her around probably isn’t a super-hot idea. Despite the generalization, kids really aren’t little Gumbys. Their bodies follow all the same laws that yours do and the sooner they develop muscle the better. They just need to start with an appropriate load and need time to adapt.

If they’d been hanging every day as they went from seven to fifty pounds of body weight, they’d have the perfect amount of muscle for their own mass. But to expect a 50-pound kid to be able to hang (or swing, which takes way more muscle mass and joint mobility) right off the bat is not a realistic physiological expectation. If you didn’t start young with your kids, don’t worry about it. Just start at the appropriate level. Let them start on a low bar and pick one leg up. And then the other. And then both, but just for a second. Maybe they are held by you and you slowly reduce your support over time, giving their tissues time to adapt. You gotta Think.

Everyone wants to know what I do with my kid. This is a little snippet of the baby pull-ups I used to do with Finn. Actually, this is after he started pulling himself into the standing position. I can’t find some of the earlier video. But I do really miss that comfy couch. Especially now that I weigh one million pounds and need to get up off of the floor every five minutes.

Oh, the movie. Sorry.


If you’re going to try this out, here are some things to consider:

1. Don’t yank on your baby. There’s a difference between you pulling on your kid and your kid pulling against something fixed. When you provide just enough resistance for their muscles to generate leverage, you ensure that the child only experiences loads that they create themselves. When you pull up on a child, you generate the load — which isn’t good — because you have no idea of your force generation and how it relates to their current abilities.

2. Pay attention. You don’t know how fatigued they are — only they do. Our “sessions” were just after a feeding and lasted maybe a few minutes tops. Signs that typically mean Let’s Do More! include them eagerly pushing with their legs, reaching towards you, or if you can feel them trying to pull you. Signs that typically mean Enough Already! I’m a Baby, not a Machine! are eyes that look away or limbs that are dropped and relaxed. Teaching a few baby signs like “More” and “All Done” also help a ton with communication.

In closing, here are my comments on injuries Nursemaid’s Elbow and graphics like the one posted: Continuing to see injuries like Nursemaid’s Elbow (and most injuries/ailments) as a flaw in human biology as opposed to the result of modern human behavior results in a decrease of human function and health. It also does little to identify WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING*. And while the graphic is correct in implying that the current state of our children’s bodies is atrophy to the point of not being able to do movements like hanging and swinging safely, it also leaves off the most important guideline: PLEASE REMEDY WEAKNESS RIGHT AWAY BY TAKING THESE STEPS. Or something like that.

But you’re working on it, I know. Which is why you are awesome.

A final video, “Rings, Day One.” Kid, 16 months old. Rings, $4.00 score at garage sale. {Note: In addition to allowing my child to potentially dislocate both his arms, he is also neither wearing pants or shoes in this clip.}

*WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING? Our lifestyle has resulted in physical atrophy at all stages of life to the point that we are physically unable to support ourselves and are suffering the physical, psychological, and spiritual issues that come with tissue destruction.


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31 thoughts on “Swing Low

  1. I wish all new and expectant moms would read and see this. It’s been a while since I’ve been within spitup distance of an infant, but I remember thinking how strong their little hands were relative to their size and age. Just fascinating to see them develop the strength to grip and pull themselves up. And almost seeing the litte wheels turn behind their eyes. Milk Provider. Guy with camera. Milk Provider.

    1. I am sooooooo the milk provider, but sometimes, to mix it up, I hold the camera too. Then there’s just that “lurking guy, not doing much…” Hahahahahahaha.

      1. HAHAHAHAHAHA!! Yes, Alexa!! You nailed the 3-month old brain. 🙂 p.s. I love the opening conversation. That sort of thing happens here all the time. Thank goodness for wikipedia. And thanks, Katy, for giving me fodder to argue (retrospectively) with all the people who thought we were crazy for putting up a zipline when my youngest was about Finn’s age. And to get up to it, a climbing wall. Phew, one thing we did right!

  2. That’s so cool! Now, to convince my husband to put monkey bars in our house will be challenging (2ish years away from having kids, so preparing now!)

  3. Is it just me, or is that the same video twice?

    As to the blog concept– I agree because I see this with my own little monkeys..er…uh..children.

  4. Two things: Did I lose the “Rings, Day One” video??? Would love to watch your delicious little guy swinging. Next: I’m waaaaaay into adulthood & only in the past 5 yrs or so have developed accurate involvement of my upper torso’s hanging muscles. But even now those muscles don’t show up for work in a reliable way. I can remember feeling Tortured as a 4 y/o in tap-ballet-acrobatics class: no way I could do a crab walk or backbend. And never could swing on the monkey bars. What’s up with all of this?

    btw, in my early 50’s I was dx’d w/ a rather complex vision processing disorder which I’m pretty sure was ‘in’ me from the get-go. Can there have been a relationship btwn my quite inaccurate vision processing & my totally won’t-show-up-for-work upper/mid/lower back structures???

    Lastly: when is that New Baby of yours gonna make an appearance?!

    1. 1. I fixed the video! Hooray! Enjoy.
      2. Sure, there could be a correlation between anything — but maybe not in the direction you think. You can start to work on your upper body and the young age of 50+!
      3. I DON’T KNOW, BUT LET’S BRING IT ON ALREADY! I can’t wait to meet this little one!

    2. I don’t know the details, because I was just a kid (v. late 1970s, early 80s) when it was going on, but one of my mom’s friends did an intensive rehabilitation program with her son for some kind of developmental or processing disorder, and it involved turning their house into a gymnasium. Mostly, I thought their house was cool. My mother tells me this woman taught her son how to crawl with alternating hands and feet as part of the rehab, for what that’s worth.

      So pretty much, I can tell you there’s some kind of research out there on this stuff, and it might be old, but it’s real.

      Katy, the video of your kid on the rings is awesome.

      1. I am so envious of his hips. Really, isn’t it just amazing? And there is quite a bit of stuff that was done in the 70s — there’s a book about super-man up your baby or something that I’ve never seen but heard about. I’ll have to track it down one of these days…

  5. Ooooo. I like the rope and rings, pulling oneself off the ground, cool. Its tuff learning ot hang at this age…puts real stress on shoulder joints. It took a LONG time to just get 2 feet off the ground muchless move through one or two monkey bars (which was all I was able to achieve). And now, I start all over again…

    On a related note about use of the body and when you start using it or in this case stop using it. I cringed yesterday watching a 60 something woman attempt and nearly fall over trying to get up off the sand @ the beach. Once up, she was so unstable and couldn’t even walk 10 feet without practically falling over. Her husband was diong great, pretty vigorous for his age; but he had to go back and give an arm to help her get back to the pavement. My comment to my husband was “don’t ever get like that” and I similarly promised to never become so immobile. My husbands’ comment was, she’s old. I said, yes but there are women and men in my classes who move really well and are her age or older. It was pretty eye opening, and so preventable.

  6. My baby is nearly a year old. What should I provide for him to work on his arm and shoulder strength. He started pulling himself up in the playpen and crib before 6 months. He has been walking for a month now and no longer needs anything to pull up on or use for balance. Should I build something for him to try and hang from and just turn him loose with it?

    Also, his gate seems odd. I’m not sure how to describe it. He looks like his belly is thrusted forward, and his knees seem to aim outwards a bit as he lifts his legs. He has never worn shoes, never been in a jumper, walker, or exersaucer, and has spent very little time in a Moby wrap and an Ergo carrier. I’m hoping I didn’t cause his strange gate and that it will resolve itself.

    Thanks for all your lovely work, and for delivering it with your fun humor.


    1. Cher — did you get a chance to read through my interview with a podiatrist on kid’s gait? I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about — gait takes a few years to settle in and a lot of kids have that turned out, round belly thing going on! And, if you can take him someplace or create something safe in your home for him to develop and progress his upper body strength on, then go for it! Nice work, mama!

  7. THANKS so much for this!! It’s like you read my mind on what I wanted to read about. This and the walking reflex post could very well change my little man’s life (he is 3 weeks old). I’m always in the mood to hear the specifics of how you practically apply what you preach, especially with regards to parenting, babies, nursing, cosleeping, etc. Basically thank you fir sharing your knowledge and passion so often and so well.

    1. Two things — I’m keeping the feet pointing forward and I’m getting the knees to an angle where the knee doesn’t shear forward. Because there’s not much traction on the couch, he can’t really dig with his heels. If the feet slide forward then his downward push is minimized. So I’m repositioning his legs for him to get some leverage. If I recall I added a yoga mat under him to keep the legs from sliding. I’m looking forward to doing more structured videos with number 2 — I didn’t think of filming that much with number 1. And I’ll have all this extra time now, with the nanny, chef and butler that I’m going to hire 🙂

  8. LOVE this, thank you SO much for explaining! It is like learning a foreign language (for me, anyway), I understand it but appreciate help putting it into words, especially for other people who are not fluent. You all (almost four of you!) rock!

  9. I’m glad to hear that all the climbing, hanging, using the drapes as rapelling (sp?) ropes to climb down the walls, etc my almost 2 & almost 4 YOs do is good for something besides driving me crazy!

  10. My new favorite acronym, courtesy of this blog post: R.P.E. Realistic Physiological Expectation. Great post and awesome videos, esp. the last one. Finn, next time we visit together we are going ring-swinging! Employing R.P.E., of course.

  11. Yum! Lusting after the ring/rope climbing set up! I finally put the pull-up bar where my older kids can get to it, but nothing of that nature for the little ones (besides hanging on for dear life during piggy back rides).

    Best Wishes on your upcoming delivery! And on your maid/chef fantasies 🙂 !

  12. I remember our little guy pulling himself up to standing at about 8 months or maybe earlier – I was shocked! But then we had been doing ‘pull ups’ in baby yoga.
    He loves being swung about and his own hanging bar that we can put up and take down in our door way (one of those chin up bar things)

    Trouble is now at 4 years old he is blooming heavy to swing around!

  13. Lovely!!! Our grandkids (now 14 & 11) have grown up mostly in the forests of Southern Oregon (though schooling in Ashland) and as such have been COMPLETELY comfortable being barefoot on rocks & trees & gravel, & jumping from rock to rock, & walking along fences etc etc. A few years ago, when Meadow was around 8, they were visiting us in the Bay Area & we got to see her being a little ‘monkey’ on bars & swinging with the greatest of ease ……. She was SO FAR ahead of the older kids who couldn’t touch what she could do! And now she does silks dancing, trapezing (or at least did, until very recently). These kids have had the opportunity to grow up with excellent food & a very natural environment where clamboring around was just the most natural thing to do!

    My hubby & I recently installed a pull-up bar in our house — & yikes — I managed to get to 30 secs hanging (NO WAY can I do a pull-up yet) after practicing for quite a while (once I had eased the INTENSE pulling on my pec attachment on my arms), but after lapsing, I am back to square zero. Gotta keep doing it!!!!!!

    1. I can only do 30 secs. also! I got up to 60, but then lapsed (it seems like 3 x a day is neccesary to improve?). Now I am gaining weight (good excuse- baby due in Jan), and have been trying hard to get back up there, but it is all I can do to hang on for 30!

      My kids are amused I hang there so briefly. While grimacing.

  14. I love this post. As an aerialist I wish I had started hanging as young as Finn! As a movement educator I appreciate the benefits of hanging for the body, and love seeing people light up when they hang, swing or pull up for the first time.

  15. Was scoping this post for a view of your monkey bars. Told dh I want monkey bars for Christmas :). Girlie saw the picture and comments “That’s what house I want to go to!” 🙂

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