To tell the truth, no one is perfectly symmetrical. 😉 Despite the fact that the right and left sides of our bodies seem to be exactly the same, if we were to measure, for example, the circumference of our arms, our legs, or the length of our fingers, we would certainly find differences (yeah, been there, done that 😉).
What’s more, if we take a closer look at how our body is built “from the inside,” we would quickly see that most of our internal organs are NOT symmetrically defined. As we all know, most organs don’t even have “counterparts” because… they are the only ones. 😉
When we want to reach for an object or kick a ball, usually it makes a difference to us which arm or leg we use. While that’s not asymmetry related to the body’s structure, it is “asymmetry” related to a specific function. 70-90% of people, depending upon their specific grouping, will choose their right hand to reach for an object.
Interestingly enough, a right-side preference — indicated by head-turning behavior or dominant hand usage — can already be noticed in newborns or even in babies who haven’t left their mother’s womb…
SO WHAT IS INFANT ASYMMETRY ALL ABOUT?
“Infant asymmetry is a clinical condition in which body structure, posture, or motor skills are disturbed. It comes from a variety of causes, it shows up in various places, and it has varied degrees of intensity. Symptoms of asymmetry can be related to body structure (structural asymmetry), its functions (functional asymmetry), or both. It can appear locally — in a specific area of the body (local asymmetry), or in the whole body (general asymmetry).” (Michalska, Szczukocki, Szwilling, Wendor, 2016)
Since our body is a whole, when something in one area changes it can affect us overall; so the topic of asymmetry should be approached calmly, but with due respect.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every single symptom of asymmetry is an immediate sign that there is something wrong in a child’s development. Depending upon the intensity of the manifestations, we can talk about asymmetry within a normal range or that which is capable of impacting a child’s normal functioning — which would, therefore, require more extensive diagnostics and an appropriately selected treatment.
WHAT CAUSES ASYMMETRY?
There are many different causes of asymmetry. It can appear as early as in the fetal stage; and can be related to the baby’s position in the womb or the amount of amniotic fluid (we don’t really have any control over that). However, it can also appear after birth.
Today’s post is not meant to break down and analyze every aspect of this because it’s all so very complex. Indeed, that is definitely a topic for specialists in child development (I’m planning on discussing this here too, someday 😉). My goal here is to get you a little more familiar with the subject, to point out the signs that should get your attention, and to show you the things worth remembering when you want to minimize the risk or persistence of asymmetry.
But before we do that, let’s talk for a minute about the opposite of asymmetry — SYMMETRY.
WHAT IS SYMMETRY?
The baby is symmetrical when:
- the torso is straight,
- the head and torso are in line,
- the shoulders and hips are parallel to each other,
- the ears are the same distance from each respective shoulder.
TWO EXAMPLES OF ASYMMETRY ARE SHOWN BELOW:
Newborn babies don’t naturally assume a symmetrical position. Immediately after birth, babies don’t have sufficient postural control; so bodily movements are largely governed by the reflexes.
Such children are not able to keep their heads straight (in the same line as their torsos), but they can turn their heads to either side.
As time passes, the nervous system matures and gradually starts to take control over the baby’s activity. We then will notice the child moves into a symmetrical position both while lying on the back as well as on the tummy.
- In the second month of life, babies achieve the so-called “fencer’s pose.” It is more or less obvious depending on the child, however it is important that babies can move BOTH sides of their bodies into this position.
- The end of the 3rd and into the 4th month of life is known to be a period of strong symmetry. When lying on the back, babies are able to keep their heads straight and in line with their torsos. They join hands at the center of their bodies, play with them, and put them into their mouths. Their legs, bent at the hips and knees, are raised above the ground. The torso is straight. This position resembles sitting — with the difference being that the baby is actually lying down. 😊
When lying on the tummy (at the end of the 3rd and into the 4th month of life), babies achieve active support on their forearms:
- the torso is straight,
- the shoulders and hips are parallel to each other,
- the distance between the ears and the shoulders is the same (the child doesn’t tilt his or her head to only one side),
- the elbows are directly under the shoulders with the head not raised too high.
Sometimes children, despite getting older, still have difficulty achieving body symmetry.
There can be many reasons for this. And, while most babies can deal with asymmetry relatively well (for some of them it is enough if we just implement the rules of Baby-Friendly Care into our daily routine), persistent asymmetry requires consultion with a specialist. Persistent asymmetry can be caused by neurological problems, or it can be associated with sight and hearing defects — or even structural changes in the child’s body.
Asymmetric distribution of muscle tension affects the later stages of a child’s development; so it is worth telling a pediatrician about any of your concerns.
Every child is different, so the reasons for asymmetry can also be different for every child. That is why any treatment should be adjusted to the individual needs of the child. There are also a few things we can do at home that can really help to ensure optimal conditions for the child’s development, and minimize the risk of developing asymmetry — or prevent it from becoming persistent.
PREVENTING ASYMMETRY: WHAT IS HELPFUL?
- From the very first days of life, make sure that the baby turns his or her head in both directions.
- Approach the baby alternately from each side (if the crib is placed against a wall, lay the baby down in alternate ways).
- Check if there are any objects (pictures, curtains, etc.) on the child’s “favored side” that could possibly attract his or her attention a little too much in that direction.
- Pay attention to baby-friendly care (ways of lifting and carrying the child, etc.), and give your little one opportunities to bear weight on both sides of his or her body. Avoid “forcing” the child to stand upright too early in life.
- Try to alternate between sides while feeding.
2. CONSTANT MOVEMENT
- Make sure that your baby changes positions frequently.
- Avoid putting your baby on soft surfaces and aviod using pillows — changing body position on a soft mattress is much more difficult for the baby.
- For the first 3-4 months, avoid putting your baby in any kind of equipment that might limit his or her mobility. It has been proven that a reclining position — like in a baby bouncer — can lead to flat head syndrome or persistent asymmetry.
3. A VARIETY OF EXPERIENCES
- Let the child experience symmetry and “feel” the center of his or her body (play with your baby while he or she is lying in your lap, clap the child’s hands together, or touch the right foot with the left hand — and vice versa).
- Gently roll the child from side-to-side, thereby weighing down one side of the body, then the other…
And that’s only the beginning! For more playtime activities which support SYMMETRY and prevent ASYMMETRY, check-out my e-book! It’s really easy to implement games and exercises into your daily routine — and it’s so WORTH it! I promise you the benefits they bring are invaluable. 😉
WHAT RED FLAGS SHOULD CATCH YOUR ATTENTION?
- If, from birth, your baby turns his or her head only to one side and has difficulty turning it in the other direction.
- If, at the end of the 2nd and into the 3rd month of life, your baby, even for a moment, is not able to keep his or her head positioned at the midline of the body — or has difficulty focusing his or her eyes or following a moving object.
- The baby’s head begins to flatten in any way.
- If we notice signs of facial asymmetry (one eye or one cheek seems larger than the other).
- The child puts only one hand in his or her mouth.
- If, at the end of the 3rd and into the 4th month of life, when we look at the baby from above we see that the shoulders and hips are not parallel to each other.
- If, at the end of the 3rd month of life, the child doesn’t enjoy lying on his or her tummy — or has difficulty maintaining balance in this position.
- When working on achieving symmetry, the position of the head is very important. Why? Because it really is a starting point for everything else. That is also why, during our daily routine, it is good to keep in mind those playtime activities that encourage focusing of the eyes, lead the eyes to the midline of the body, and gradually bring the focus downward.
It is very difficult to achieve bodily symmetry when the child’s head is in a position like this:
- At the end of the 3rd and into the 4th month of life, achieving and maintaining bodily symmetry does NOT mean that the child won’t move his or her body into an asymmetrical position ever again! Actively shortening and elongating the body’s sides is a very useful ability to have in the future! The rule is, however, that the child is in CONTROL of this asymmetry — not other way around!
Of course, it would be too good to be true if these tips could completely protect your baby from asymmetry — and you from a ton of stress.
However, one thing is guaranteed: With these things in mind, we can be certain that we have done everything in our power to avoid the manifestation or persistence of asymmetry. We then can leave the rest to specialists. 🙂
You may also be interested in:
Put symmetry to practice through play! Learn how to help your baby find the midline of his or her body – and how both of you can have fun doing it! Check out these ideas for playtime — from birth to first steps — in the following e-book:
E-book: A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR THE MOST FUN PLAYTIME WITH YOUR CHILD
- Michalska A., Szczukocki M., Szwilling Z., Wendor J. (2016). “Differential Diagnosis of Asymmetry in Infants:” Developmental Period Medicine, XX, 4
- Bly L. (2011). “Components of Typical and Atypical Motor Development:” Neuro-Developmental Treatment Association. Laguna Beach , 31-33.
- Persing et al. (2003). Prevention and Management of Positional Skull Deformities in Infants.