Dear Mr. Dad: I have a 10 month old son. For the past two months, he and i have enjoyed “wrestling” – that is, I lie on my back and he crawls around on top of me and slides off or rolls off (guided so he doesn’t really crash). I also occasionally hold him upside down by his hips. In all of this, my son laughs. Mom is not good with our wrestling and thinks I am far too rough. Can you offer some guidance?

A: You say three things in your letter that tell me you’re taking reasonable precautions. First, you’re making sure your son doesn’t crash. Shaken Baby Syndrome—which can cause brain damage, spinal cord injuries, and worse—isn’t always about shaking. Abrupt jerking or whiplash motions could cause problems too. So guiding him from your chest to the floor is a good idea.

Second, you’re keeping a firm grip on your baby as you hold him upside down. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about being upside down—after all, babies spend a good portion of their time in the womb with their feet in the air. Your wife may be worried that you’ll cause brain damage or that you’ll dislocate your baby’s hips, knees, or ankles. There’s absolutely no evidence that validates either of those fears. (All three of my children spent half their life dangling upside down and they’re all doing just fine, physically and intellectually.) As long as you’re not swinging your baby, and as long as you’re keeping his head from snapping around, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Third—and most important—is that your baby is laughing. He may not be able to speak actual words, but he’s perfectly capable of communicating pleasure and displeasure—and he’s not going to be terribly subtle about it. If your baby wasn’t having a good time, he’d let you know by fussing, crying, or trying to wriggle out of your arms. Just be sure to pay close attention to how he’s reacting and stop immediately when it’s not fun anymore (for the baby, not for you—although you should stop then too).

As far as guidance, I’ve got several suggestions.

  • Make an appointment with your baby’s pediatrician and consider it a kind of binding arbitration. Demonstrate for the doc what you’re doing at home. If you get a thumbs up, your wife agrees to back off. If it’s a thumbs down, you agree to adjust your baby handling to whatever the doc says is safe.
  • Assuming that the pediatrician okays your baby gymnastics routines, it might be a good idea to do your training at a time your wife isn’t going to be around to worry.
  • Talk to your wife. She wouldn’t have married you if she really thought that you’d be a danger to children. Tell her that there’s lots of evidence that babies who wrestle with their fathers grow up to have more highly developed social skills—including empathy—than kids who don’t get as much time rolling around with dad.
  • Expand your horizons. There are plenty of ways to interact physically with your baby that are a bit calmer. For example, babies his age love chasing and being chased, so get out your knee pads and start crawling.
  • Time your physical activity. Too soon after a meal and you’ll end up having to wash baby spit-up off your shoes and the floor. Too close to bedtime and your baby may have trouble settling into sleep mode.