Healthful exercise, especially when taken in the open air and sunshine, invigorates the nerves; secures an active performance of such vital functions as circulation, respiration, and digestion; maintains a hearty appetite and regular movement of the bowels, and develops the muscles.
Symmetry of development is essential, and on this account any exercise or play that brings but one or a few sets of muscles into action, must be discountenanced. The muscles control the bones, and should one set be comparatively feeble, the bones they move are dragged out of form by stronger opposing sets. Probably the most important groups of muscles to render strong are those of the back which hold the spine in proper position. When these are weak -- the greatest weight of the trunk being toward the front -- the backbone has a tendency to be drawn forward in such a way that the movements of the chest are crippled, and respiration so interfered with, that the blood is imperfectly aerated, nutrition fails, and the child becomes a weak, puny invalid.
Curvature of the spine -- the deformity here referred to -- may also interfere with other functions; for instance, digestion, elimination of urine and the motion of the legs. Bone deformities are more apt to occur in children than in adults, because, in the former, the bones, not being thoroughly set and hardened, are more readily influenced by irregular muscular action.
Marking, then, the necessity for equal muscular development, the subject of exercise may be taken up in detail.
The first exercise the infant gets will be in the nurse's arms. Shortly (three or four days) after birth the babe may be taken from its crib two or three times a day, and, being placed upon its back on a pillow, carried about the room for ten or fifteen minutes. In the second months, longer walks may be taken, the pillow being discarded and the infant carried in a reclining position in the arms, with the head and body thoroughly supported.
By the fourth month the child will have gained sufficient muscular strength to maintain a sitting posture for a short time, provided the head and shoulders be supported by the nurse's hand, and in this way it may be carried about on the right or left arm -- and it is most important not to use one arm constantly -- for its daily training.
At the end of the eighth month a healthy child ceases to require support to the head and back when carried, but not before.
After the infant ceases to be merely a sleeping and eating animal, and begins to show signs of humanity, at about the fourth month, for example, he should be laid upon a soft mattress or sofa several times each day and allowed to do as he pleases.
Under these circumstances, he rolls about and kicks his arms, clasps and unclasps his fists, moves his arms, and crows or cries. All of these movements serve a purpose; the legs gain strength for future walking; the hands, for grasping; the arms, for carrying, and the vocal organs, for speaking.
A certain class of nurses seem unable to comprehend that a baby is a tender creature; tender not only in age, but in the texture of all its tissues. They support a young infant upright upon their knees and violently jolt it up and down, under the supposition that it gives pleasure, and should the child cry they add to its torment by a peculiar "song." Gentle movement is as pleasant to the child as riding in an easily running carriage on a smooth road to an adult; knee jolting as unpleasant and harmful as a journey over the worst corduroy road. The so-called singing must cause only pain.
The question of out-door exercise arises soon after birth. Daily airings are requisite for perfect health as soon as the child has arrived at the proper age, and providing always that the weather be favorable. The fifth month is the proper age for children born in the all and winter, and the second month, for those born in summer. In cool weather they should be taken out in a baby carriage or in the nurse's arms, for an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon, while the sun is shining. In summer, they may pass the greater part of their waking hours in the open air. In damp and rainy weather, when there is a strong east or north wind blowing, or when the mercury stands below 20° F., young children are better off in the nursery. The hardening process, in our climate, so far from being successful, usually results in an attack of bronchitis or something worse, which may house the child for a long time, and thus deprive him of the advantage of subsequent favorable weather.
How shall the baby be taken out? The answer to this question involves the consideration of two points, namely, the clothing and the means of conveyance. The former has already been referred to.
As to the method of conveyance, the arm is to be preferred for very young infants, especially in cold weather, because they are apt to be uncomfortable in a baby carriage, and because as they must, when carried, be held close to the nurse's body, they are kept warm by the heat given off from the bearer.
After the fourth month a carriage may be used. Now there are good and bad baby carriages, as well as a right and a wrong way of trundling them; and here again the mother must not forget that the baby is a tender creature and very easily hurt.
The best kind of carriage is none too good for the load it is destined to carry. It should run smoothly, without jolt or jar; its wheels should be kept from creaking by the frequent application of some mineral oil, as "sewing-machine oil," the bed must be soft and comfortable, lateral support being given to the body by two long, narrow and soft pillows. The infant must never be strapped down, and the parasol must always be at hand, and so arranged as to shade the tender eyes from bright sunlight.
While the carriage is a convenience to the nurse, it is never to be regarded as a place of security for the child, to be left on the sidewalks or in windy places while the wheeler exchanges gossip with fellow-nurses or enters a house to visit friends. However good its springs may be, they are never easy enough to allow of rude jolting or of mounting a raised curbstone by mere dint of hammering and muscle force.
After the age of nine or ten months, a healthy child will begin to creep; at the end of a year he will make efforts to stand, and from four to eight months later will be able to walk by himself. Children, however, present great differences in this respect, and a delay of a few months must not be considered abnormal. Second children are usually more active than those born first, since they imitate and are encouraged by the example of their elders.
So soon as efforts at creeping are made there need be no fear that insufficient exercise will be taken; the care should be, rather, to prevent over-fatigue, as the babe, delighted by its new-found powers, will be inclined to exert them all day long.
So soon as creeping begins, the question arises whether or not the nursery floor is a permissible field for exercise. This depends entirely upon the child's health, the state of the weather and the condition of the nursery. Remember always that the stratum of air next to the floor is much lower in temperature than the middle or upper. In some of the biting days of winter it becomes so cold as to make the feet and legs of an adult uncomfortable, and completely to chill a child, who, in creeping, has his whole body in it for long periods. Therefore, should a child be delicate, should he have either bronchitis or catarrh of the digestive tract, should the weather be very cold, or should the heating of the chamber be imperfect, it is better to keep him off the floor and let him take his exercise on the nurse's bed, which may be stripped down to the mattress for the purpose. Colds are contracted and many more are protracted by playing on the floor in winter.
Many nurses, and some mothers, have an idea that a child should walk at a certain fixed age, and when this time arrives, put into practice various plans for teaching the process. Beware of this, for go-carts, leading-strings, baby-jumpers and all contrivances of this ilk have a tendency to flatten the chest, distort the spine or deform the legs. The proper and only safe plan is to let the child teach himself to walk. This he readily does, first through the act of creeping, in which he exercises every muscle of the body without throwing undue weight upon the soft bones. When by this exercise he has sufficiently strengthened the muscles, he will instinctively seek to do more; first in an effort to get upon the feet, in which, though failure occurs over and over again, he perseveres until successful in standing with support, then without, and finally ends in walking.
The first acquisition of the power of walking should not be overtaxed, and for a month or more the carriage is the best means of airing; but so soon as sufficient strength is acquired for active exercise -- a somewhat variable age -- the child should walk out and pass as much time as the weather and nursery conditions permit, in the open air. Set walks, however, are an abomination to the child as well as to the adult. City-bred children suffer most in this respect, as they are too frequently sent out merely to walk a certain number of blocks, or for a fixed time, and it is no wonder that they quickly tire of such exercise and prefer their nurseries to the streets. The only way to avoid this is to give an object to the outing, as, for example, a household errand or the purchase of a cheap toy. In the country, on the other hand, children run about and amuse themselves according to their own pleasure, visit the garden or the farm, and involuntarily take that kind and degree of exercise best calculated to promote the growth and development of their bodies.
Delicate, scrofulous, and consumptive children preëminently require pure air and an out-door life, though many of them are too feeble to take sufficient exercise on foot. For such, when the parents' purse allows, a donkey or a pony should be provided. Driving may give sufficient exercise at first; but as soon as enough strength is gained, riding is to be preferred, as it keeps the mind more healthfully occupied, strengthens the muscles, expands the chest and produces a healthy appetite and digestion.
In the earlier years of life the girl and boy play together and take nearly the same sort and amount of exercise. As time goes on, however, and the girl approaches nearer and nearer to maidenhood, she too frequently begins to look upon her brother's game of ball or romping play as too rough, and spends a constantly increasing time indoors acquiring the manners and the sedentary habits of her elders of the same sex.
This tendency is often encouraged by parents, who prefer polished manners to physical strength, and, above all, dislike their daughters becoming "tom-boys." One must admit that polished manners are a great attraction; but as a woman has more important duties than shining in a drawing-room, they are of little intrinsic value when uncombined with the fine carriage and good figure which belong only to robust health.
In regard to the carriage and figure, it is useless to try and assist their formation by the aid of braces and corsets. The latter are especially to be condemned. Unless most cautiously used, they induce undue contraction of the lower part of the chest and displace the solid organs (live especially) of the abdomen, interfering primarily with respiration and digestion, and secondarily with the general processes of nutrition. An erect carriage can be better secured by attention to the general health; suitable diet; regulation of the bowels; cold bathing and sponging, and exercise short of fatigue, not of particular muscles only, but of the whole frame.
My advice, therefore, is to let the girls join in the boys' play. By this plan the latter gain, because they are naturally forced to be more gentle, and the former, because their rapidly-developing frames get the requisite amount of exercise. It is well, however, to curb the ambition of the girls to equal the athletic powers of the boys, for their muscular strength is less. Without letting the subjects know, keep a strict looking upon the general morals, for it is absurd to shut one's eyes to this risk in mingling the sexes in later childhood and youth.
Amusements. -- A child's life must be devoted to the cultivation of his mind and his body, an undue development of either resulting in an incomplete manhood or womanhood.
After writing the above sentence I was called from my desk to the bedside of a little sufferer, and on my way met two boys, both about nine years of age, and both patients of mine. The first had a spirituelle face, and spoke to me with a tip of his hat and the grace of a little Chesterfield; but his features were pinched, so it seemed to me, while his face was anxious and his legs were hardly thick enough to carry his body. Nevertheless, his arms were full of books, which, as I had curiousity enough to examine, I found to be a Greek grammar, Caesar and the elements of algebra. I felt sorry for the overtaxed little brain, and he showed no symptoms of joy at release from school, for he was on his way home to study all his books, to get the teacher's approval and a high mark on the morrow. Scarcely a block away I met my next little friend; his cheeks were rosy, his arms and legs sturdy, and his eyes brimful of health and fun. The burden of books he bore was light, and his teacher probably considered him stupid; but his simple "Halloo, Doctor, I am off for a game of ball this afternoon," and his jolly smile, were more pleasing than all the learning of the first little gentleman.
The lesson taught by these two children is very plain to my mind, and the question which will come out ahead in the long run is easily answered; for health has no handicap in the race of life.
It is right, of course, to let the children study -- after the sixth year; but the brain is not to be cultivated at the expense of the body; in other words, our boys and girls must have plenty of play.
The subject of childish diversion is a broad one, and it is only possible to outline it here. Let the healthy child play as much as possible in the open air, and let him be as active as he pleases; for his own sensations will tell him when to stop and when to begin again. The only cautions are not to overlook him too much; to let him make as much noise as he wishes out of doors and in his own kingdom -- the nursery; to make him play those games which will exercise all the muscles of the body equally, and to guard him, when heated, from drinking ice water or from lying on the cold, damp ground or sitting in a draught. It must be remembered, also, that play is the child's business, so that during convalescence from a debilitating disease it must be regulated according to the strength.
Before closing this chapter a protest must be entered against roller-skates and bicycles; the first are dangerous to life and limb, and the last, though not so liable to result in broken limbs, produce, from the position it is necessary to assume, a narrowing of the upper portion of the chest.