Geneva (18 months), Luke and Tracy

Baby-tossing dads are on to something

A playground near my house has a zipline-style swing. You (um, I mean, the kids) sit or stand on a little disc-shaped seat dangling from a rope, grab ahold of the rope, and have someone swing you down the zipline. One day, a boy, maybe 3 years old, perched on the swing at one end of the line. His dad gripped the rope above where the boy was holding onto it. The dad ran alongside his son halfway down the line, then whipped the swing toward the end. The boy flew toward the end of the line. The pulley overhead wheeled along the cable, fast, before hitting a rubber stopper–smack. Momentum swung the boy out-out-out and then back again, gaining enough speed to zip back in the other direction along the line.

The little boy laughed and squealed. He had the biggest smile on his face.

His mom shouted over to them from the nearby grass. You can probably guess what she said, and the tone of supreme irritation she said it in. “C’mon! Do you have to swing him so hard?”

As a mom with the same protective reflex, that was my first thought, too. And I’ve had that thought when my husband tosses our daughter on the bed from afar, or when he sits her across one arm and then quickly flips her upside down.

But here’s why I don’t say anything:

  • The kids are so clearly having the time of their lives. “Again! Again!” they squeal. So who are we actually protecting if we step in and stop this? The only one feeling troubled is me.
  • The dads are so clearly enjoying themselves. They’re having fun, bonding with their kids. It’s something we might wish they’d do more often. And yet here we are making them feel like jerks who aren’t responsible enough to handle their own child.
  • The research says dads are right.

All the tossing and spinning and wrestling around that dads tend to do in a more physical way than moms? It’s great for baby’s vestibular system, the part of the body that controls motion and balance. Same with all of the rocking, bouncing, and jumping that kids do on their own. Kids with a stronger vestibular system, as you might imagine, have better coordination. In Zero to Five, I talk about a study where researchers sat in a swivel chair and spun infants around. Those who spun had better reflexes and were better at crawling, standing, and walking than the infants who weren’t spun. (You can spin your baby in a swivel chair, too, but it probably won’t be more interesting than just playing, roughhousing, dancing together, going about your day with your infant in a carrier, etc.)

There’s more. Scientists are finding that kids who have learning disabilities, language disorders, and attention deficits also have problems with their vestibular systems. A good sense of balance and motion may be foundational in higher-level learning abilities, says scientist Lise Eliot.

That’s why, even if I’m feeling wary when my husband and toddler roughhouse, I just smile at them and exclaim, “Whoa!” And sometimes I even join in the fun.


Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

5 thoughts on “Baby-tossing dads are on to something

  1. Tracy, I love this. “The kids are so clearly having the time of their lives,” is such an important clue! All of what you described is following the child’s lead and their giggles, so that they never feel like they are grabbed and tossed around without their permission. That makes all the difference. It also reminded me of “The Art of Roughhousing” by Dr. Anthony DeBenedet and Dr. Lawrence Cohen that your readers might enjoy: “Larry” is one of my favorite parenting authors (Playful Parenting, The Opposite of Worry, etc.) You can find all of his books here which like your “Zero to Five” book are great additions to every parent’s library:

  2. I have to wonder though, are the kids with a less developed vestibular system that way because they didn’t have a parent rough housing with them? Otherwise, how would one child in a family with the same parents have vestibular issues but other siblings don’t? Does this just help develop an otherwise healthy vestibular system?

    1. Chelsie, I think the author is saying that mechanical stimulation (or “rough housing” as you, for some reason, call it) is one of many positive things you can do. Which are probably still minor to genetic factors. Blog summaries tend to lay it on thick.

      Personally I see it as a push back against some parents fear of giving their child shaken baby at syndrome simply by dancing or playing. I have many friends who refuse to swing their children at all for that reason.

    2. Chelsie, don’t forget that everything is 50% nature (genetics) and 50% nurture (environment). Tossing your kid in the air is not a requirement; it’s just not a bad thing, as some fear. 🙂

      On the environment side, kids with a less developed vestibular system may not have been given the chance to move their bodies as much as they liked. Perhaps they go from car seat to stroller to baby “activity station” to crib most of the day. Perhaps they’re dressed in restrictive clothing and stiff-soled shoes. Or scolded not to run. They may have been placed in front of devices. We unintentionally do plenty of things, in modern Western culture, that go against the brain’s natural development.

      The hopeful thing for me is that (unless we know development is lagging) we don’t really have to manufacture situations to give our kids what they need and what they naturally strive to get. We don’t have to schedule baby-tossing sessions, for example. We just need to focus on love, talk, play … and get out of their way. 🙂


  3. Whenever my husband plays with my 4-year-old daughter, he hangs her upside down by the ankles, she loves it.

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