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Parents can help their children achieve good posture from a young age and avoid unnecessary spinal tension with a few helpful tips

I hate the way I instinctively slouch when I sit and I’m hoping my son maintains his ruler-straight back and out-turned shoulder posture well into adulthood. To help him achieve this, I buy him an expensive chair. It’s adjustable and can be used for many years, thus the expense spread over the years of usage render it a reasonable buy. But, I still look at it as one notch short of a throne, given how much I paid!

I am hoping that the “throne” is going to make all the difference, as new research shows that sitting up straight is physically impossible if your feet are not resting firmly on something. No small child whose legs are dangling above the ground can sit straight, as feet need support. The throne comes with a foot-resting ledge, which, for the most part, my son uses as such. However, when I am around the corner it becomes a platform from which to launch himself onto the dining-room table.

Movement Model

Posture should be looked at as an essential element of our overall wellbeing. The Chiropractic Association of South Africa (CASA) has partnered with a global initiative called Straighten Up and Move. They envision “a time when everyone performs a short enjoyable spinal exercise module daily, just as we brush our teeth”. I am determined to lead by example, particularly when I stumble across new research that says children of slouchers will become slouchers themselves.

The Straighten Up UK website has an easy-to-follow YouTube clip. Ten minutes later, I have completed my spine-strengthening exercises. I try it out again after supper. We look like butterflies, swans, eagles and owls as we twist and bend our arms shoulders, necks and heads. The exercises have names such as “Twisting and Twirling Stars”, “Humming Birds” and my personal favourite, “The Shakes”. My two year old makes every effort to copy me. I am delighted and vow to keep at it every day. Not so much for him, with his ruler-straight posture, but  to improve my own posture, so that he may have, at the very least, a half-decent role model to emulate.

Be aware of the dangers of heavy school bags, which can affect your child’s spine and posture.  And try these exercises to get them moving.

Be Seated

Even with the best chair and daily exercises, you are apparently fighting a losing battle when your child starts school. Sue Merry, a UK-based Alexander-technique practitioner, firmly believes that school furniture can do great damage, as desks are made to be functional, chairs to be stackable, with little thought given to the varying sizes of growing children. Compare this to the corporate working environment where there are often mandatory chair and lighting level inspections, and where very few of us would not hesitate to pick up the phone to HR or facilities management to report any ergonomic discomfort we may be experiencing. Perhaps it is the threat of lower backache or sciatic-nerve lawsuits, but generally somebody comes running to fix the situation.

However, Sue points out that by adulthood the damage has already been done. “Badly designed and ill-fitting chairs and tables make it very difficult for a small child to maintain their natural poise and freedom from unnecessary tension. Eventually, most children stop trying and collapse into the chair, until sitting in this way quickly becomes habitual and feels right,” she says.

Read about how to create a smart space for children to work in.

So, the throne is only going to help up to a point, and refurnishing a school or even just a classroom is unlikely. But before I give up, I learn that strengthening core muscles is essential to a child’s long-term posture. Early sports such as gymnastics, karate and even horse riding are said to be beneficial and it goes without saying that after a morning spent slouched over ill-fitting furniture, an afternoon spent slouching on the sofa isn’t going to help. So, with the throne, daily spine exercises, and some sport thrown into the pot, my son may very well be the one telling me to sit up straight.

Find out more about using the right desk and chair. There’s more correct seating and posture advice here.

Sit Back and Relax

Research conducted by Woodend Hospital in Scotland in 2006 revealed that sitting up straight might not be so good for us, after all. The researchers measured spinal angles and spinal-disc movement in a variety of positions from sitting up straight, to slouching, to sitting back in your chair at a 135-degree angle. The 135-degree position won, but they did concede that this might cause a person to slide off their seat, so the acceptable position was adjusted to 120 degrees.

Exercise Your Spine

Try these spinal exercises from the Straighten Up UK campaign.

  • Stand Tall: Straighten up in the Stand Tall posture. Ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be in a straight line. Pull your belly button in towards your spine.
  • The Eagle: In the Stand Tall posture, bring your arms out to your sides and gently draw your shoulder blades together. Breathe in as you slowly raise your arms, touching your hands together above your head. Slowly lower your arms to your sides as you breathe out. Perform three times.
  • The Hummingbird: Next, make small backward circles with your hands and arms, drawing your shoulder blades together. Sway gently from side to side. Enjoy for 10 seconds.
  • The Butterfly: Place your hands behind your head and gently draw your elbows backward. Slowly and gently press your head backwards and resist with your hands for a count of two, and release. Breathe freely. Perform three times. Then gently massage the back of your neck and head as you relax your stomach region with slow, easy breathing.
Other ways to help encourage good posture:
  • wear a good pair of shoes with soft, flexible soles.
  • avoid carrying heavy bags.
  • perform regular exercise to strengthen core muscles.
  • don’t sit for too long.
  • practise regular shoulder shrugs and stretching.
  • use both straps on a rucksack.
  • limit extended game times.
  • sleep on a good mattress.
  • don’t sleep on your stomach.

Adapted from the British Chiropractic Association

Donna Cobban