Baby gymnastics: Russia's 'potentially dangerous' therapy

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

Oleg Tyutin and baby Pavel
Image caption,
Oleg trains with young babies - Pavel is 17 days old

Oleg Tyutin is a psychotherapist, but for the past 20 years he has been practising a different kind of medicine.

He trains young mums like Victoria Kurzina to do the kind of exercises with their babies that would spark an outcry in the West.

Mr Tyutin holds Victoria's baby by the legs, so that little Pavel is dangling upside down - and swings him gently from side to side like a pendulum.

Then, like the game of cup and ball, he swings the baby up towards him and catches him in his chest.

Pavel is just 17 days old.

The Russians call this dynamic baby gymnastics.

The practice is legal in Russia and widespread. There are believed to be hundreds of practitioners across the country.

Oleg maintains it gives babies a head start in life.

"When they're born, babies are very tense," Oleg explains.

"They're frightened by the wide, open space around them. This procedure helps a baby adapt to their new surroundings. It makes infants more open, more sociable, more relaxed. It also helps them develop more quickly."

After lesson one, Victoria doesn't feel confident enough to have a go herself.

"It's a bit frightening really," Victoria admits. "A specialist - well, his hands are confident, he has all the experience, he knows what to do. But I'm still at the learning stage."

Video blocked

Dynamic baby gymnastics is not part of mainstream medicine in Russia.

It is not something you can arrange on the health service here. It is performed in private practices.

And, although it is legal, it is highly controversial.

Image caption,
The technique helps babies become more sociable, Mr Tyutin says

Last month a clip of dynamic baby gymnastics on video sharing website YouTube horrified internet users.

Along with a musical accompaniment, it showed a Russian woman energetically swinging a baby around her head and shoulders.

YouTube blocked the video after it was flagged as too shocking, but the woman in the video, midwife Elena Fokina, has criticised the move.

"People in Europe are used to raising their children in over-sanitised conditions, they're scared of everything," Elena told me by telephone from Egypt where she now lives.

"I'm really sorry the video clip has been removed - it's sad that a lot of parents will miss the chance to see that there is another way to bring up your baby."

Not everyone is so disappointed.

"I think this is potentially dangerous. I would never recommend it," says American general practitioner Robert Young.

Dr Young trained in paediatrics and worked in Russia for 13 years.

"Russian parents are no different from any parents in the world. They want their babies to grow up the best they possibly can. And here is a technique purported to advance their children developmentally, socially, in every way. That's enticing. I'm just not sure it does any of that and I think the potential for injuries is there.

"The baby can slip, the baby can accidentally move when he's being twisted around and hit somebody's leg or furniture. That would be harmful in all cases."

Not illegal

Paediatrician Natalya Belova is also critical.

"It's a problem of chronic stress in the country," considers Dr Belova.

Image caption,
Many mothers enjoy exercising with their babies

"When the general system is under stress, people start to practise very unusual things. There are people like that in every country. This isn't criminal but it's important to examine this procedure and understand what consequences it might have for the children."

There have been no official studies of dynamic baby gymnastics.

Because the procedure has not been certified by the Russian Ministry of Health, health officials in Moscow felt unable to comment on the practice.

The Russian President's Ombudsman for Children's Rights also declined a request for an interview.

But Oleg Tyutin rejects the criticism. He maintains that dynamic baby gymnastics is safe, if carried out under strict supervision.

Mr Tyutin performed dynamic gymnastics on his own children. He's now doing the same exercises with his own granddaughter Varya, who is two-and-half-months old.

He shows me. Holding Varya upside down, and by one leg, he spins her round in a complete circle.

It looks shocking, but as long as the Russian authorities continue to allow it, Oleg will continue to offer his services.