Spoiled sports: Enrolling children in sports much too early

February 1, 2011

Most parents will go to great lengths, and spare no expense, to help their children get ahead.

Most parents will go to great lengths, and spare no expense, to help their children get ahead. Of course, this is not news to pediatricians, and it is no secret to entrepreneurs, either.

Every day, primary care pediatricians provide anticipatory guidance to help parents plan for and facilitate attainment of developmental milestones. The Healthy Start program strives to help young families get off to a good start. Reach Out and Read aims to promote specific skill development in children. Few of us in pediatrics would deny the value of promoting effective development of young children.

Yet, America is a nation of "if some is good, more must be better." As such, there is a constant barrage of new products and opportunities on the market, promising to help children become smarter, cuter, more talented. Baby Einstein DVDs, toddlers' Gucci clothing, and foreign language-immersion preschools are just a few examples that show how our nation's capitalistic spirit welcomes parents' insatiable desire to give their children every possible advantage.

Beyond these, gym classes and sports training classes for toddlers are booming in popularity, ranging from structured exercise classes to sports-specific training sessions.

Professional athletes are revered in the United States, and visions of a future elite athlete dominate the dreams of many parents whose children hit their first home run, sink their first jump shot, or score their first hat trick. Perhaps the future holds a full-ride scholarship to college, endless adulation, or a lucrative first-round draft contract.

Directly or indirectly, these toddler-oriented sports classes play into those parental aspirations, with the hope that providing children early exposure to sports may lead to earlier mastery, greater ability, and a leg up on the competition.

The promoters of toddler sports training mostly downplay these motives and instead emphasize that the primary aim of their activities is to engage children in physical activity at a young age in an effort to stem the rising tide of childhood obesity.

Unfortunately, this seemingly reasonable argument has little scientific support. Studies have shown a poor correlation between chubby infants or toddlers and long-term obesity. Simple, unstructured active play enables toddlers to explore their environment, develop their interests, and incidentally burn calories.

The risks of overfocusing on sports and exercise in toddlers have not been quantified but should be considered. It is possible that such activities could cause an increase in overuse injuries from stress on immature skeletons and joints that were not designed for repetitive sports-related activities. There also are risks from excessive parental attention to sports and athletic achievement.

There are many outspoken critics (I count myself among them) of sports specialization in young children, a trend that toddler sports training only would seem to accentuate. There are risks from excessive attention to weight control in infants and toddlers. These children need adequate fat intake to promote neurologic development. We do not know the psychological consequences of a very young child perceiving himself or herself as fat, especially when this is a misperception brought on too early by a focus on the athletic build and "getting enough exercise."

Although there may be some children who benefit, creating a Baby Goes Pro mindset among parents
and directing infants and toddlers toward sport-specific training are ill-advised, profit-seeking ventures aimed squarely at parents' insecurities about doing enough for their children.

As pediatricians, we should reassure parents that they needn't succumb to pressure to add one more structured activity, and they should be aware of the potential downsides of these particular experiences.

We should counsel parents to provide infants and toddlers with broad, unstructured, active play experiences and teach them that these provide enough exercise for almost all infants and toddlers.

Playtime between parents and children certainly is important, but this time needn't be spent learning sports rules and regulations or getting plenty of "reps" for sports excellence.

Most important, children should be allowed to become all-stars in a wide range of pursuits, at their own pace, and according to their own interests.