Surprising Things Babies Might Do (If Given The Chance)

Important Disclaimer: the ‘might do’ things discussed in this post should not be construed as things your baby should be able to do. This list is not intended to cause an iota of parental worry, a smidgen of doubt. Infants and toddlers develop skills at highly individual rates and need to be trusted to do so in their own perfect time. The purpose of this post is all positive, a friendly reminder that our ever-growing and changing babies are often more capable than we think — in fact, more capable than they were last week, maybe even a few hours ago. But they can’t do anything if we don’t give them the chance.

Babies need opportunities to try and then practice new skills, and our challenge is to keep remembering to slow down and be open to providing them. The benefits are obvious. Children love to “do it themselves”. Small moments of mastery and accomplishment help them cope with age-appropriate toddler angst and frustrations. The happiest, most self-confident babies are those who are respected as innately capable, encouraged to be active participants in their care (and life), and allowed to be achievers whenever possible. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago during a RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class

Since only two families out of seven showed up (due to summer vacations), I impulsively decided to offer a new activity during snack time, one I usually introduce with children older than these, thinking it wouldn’t matter if it was a minor disaster with only two at the table. This group of children is 15 to 19 months of age, and so far they’ve been capable of patiently allowing me to wipe their hands, choosing their own bibs, helping me peel the banana before I offer them pieces to eat, all the while remaining politely seated (for the most part) across the table from me. Just a few weeks ago I began pouring little sips of water into real glasses for the children to drink, refilling them as requested. Most of them seem to have that skill down.

So, I brought out a very small plastic measuring cup (smaller than the one I’d been pouring with) and invited the little boy and girl to try pouring their own water. To my amazement, they both did it. For developmental perspective, the one who was more adept (I didn’t have to move his glass at all to catch the water) is a few months younger and a much “later” walker. He has only taken a step or two at 16 months. You just never know what they’re working on.

The children seemed thrilled with their achievement, and I was inspired to try again the next week with a couple more children. The “returnees” were quite eager and excited to repeat their successes.

This time, another relatively late walker (who had been an early crawler) took the measuring cup and started tipping the side without the spout towards her glass. I had to stifle my impulse to help. There was a moment of suspense as she seemed to change her mind, turned the pitcher around and — voila! — poured perfectly. Oh, the expression of satisfaction on her face!

How much longer might I have overlooked the possibility of the children pouring their own water, if not for the very small class? This happened to me many times as a mother, especially with my first child. Only by accident would I discover that my baby was capable of things I hadn’t yet imagined.

So, what other possibilities are there for babies and one-year-olds…what else might they do?

1. Dress and undress (but undressing usually comes first)

This is the most common one parents seem to overlook or just don’t make time for. Babies can take their shoes and socks off if we provide minimal help (like sliding the sock over their heel so they can pull it off from the toe). Parents get used to rushing these things to get them done, but if we slow down and give children a little time, make a conscious effort to “move at the speed of children” (as Jeanne from the website Zella Said Purple aptly describes it), they often do it with only minimal assistance or none at all.

In my classes I ask the children if they would like to take their bibs off and give them to me, and then I usually loosen the Velcro so that they can get the bib off easily. But one child in this one-year-old class surprised me by being able to put her bib on herself.  She is fond of wearing not just one, but two overlapping bibs, and she puts them on herself. But in another class I facilitated, 2 year olds weren’t yet doing this. Is that because I did it for them and didn’t give them the opportunity?

Note: none of these things should be expected, requested or insisted upon by parents…just offered as an option, like: “Would you like to try taking your sock off yourself?” Independence and mastery are about accomplishing things by choice. Toddlers sometimes choose not to do things they are fully capable of doing for a variety of healthy reasons. Trust and don’t push.

2. Eat with a spoon

All three of my children ate well with a spoon soon after they turned one, probably because I followed Magda Gerber’s advice to introduce solids with the baby on my lap and use two spoons, so that the baby had one to practice with daily.

3. Climb into a car seat

I’m definitely a creature of habit, and this one took me by surprise with all three children. It would happen by accident when I wasn’t looking. I’d realize…whoa…my baby is quite capable of climbing into her seat and may have been able to for a long while.

4. Climb up and get back down (with spotting)

If babies get used to us taking them down from structures, steps, etc., rather than waiting, spotting and encouraging them while they problem-solve, they can believe themselves incapable and dependent on us to help them do what they can do on their own.

5. Puzzles

This is another thing babies can begin doing, but only if we 1) don’t show or help them, and 2) don’t lead them to believe that puzzles are tasks that need completing. Just let them fiddle, experiment, leave things partially ‘done’.  Don’t teach them there’s a right way, and they’ll retain the confidence to persevere and eventually succeed.

 And more generally…

6. Natural gross motor development

Babies can achieve all developmental milestones (and enjoy many transitional positions in between) without adult assistance, if they have plenty of floor time to practice.

7. Self-entertainment – extended periods of uninterrupted independent play

We create this opportunity when we provide safe play spaces that include some open ended play objects (see this video for ideas) and cultivate independent play from the beginning. Babies revel in their free play time when it has been introduced early and gradually becomes a predictable part of their daily routine.

Of course, our babies can’t do any of these things without our support – our patience, restraint, encouragement, and acknowledgement of their struggles and successes. As Magda Gerber explains in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, sensitive observation is the key to knowing what to do when…

“By closely supervising our infants, by allowing them to do what they are capable of, by restraining ourselves from rescuing them too often, by waiting and waiting and waiting, by giving minimal help when they really need it, we allow our infants to learn and grow at their own time, and in their own way.”

I share more about capable babies and toddlers in my new book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Have your babies surprised you with their abilities? Please share!

(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)

41 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Wonderful post, Janet. London turned one year old on Sunday, and I am amazed at the things she is starting to do. And the joy she experiences – just as you describe above – is incredible to see!

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom and helping me to be a happier and more relaxed parent for her at this amazing time in her life.

    1. Suzy, you are so welcome. Yes, it’s an amazing time and I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  2. Thanks for another great post. I have been introducing drinking from a glass and my 12mo. old does great drinking from it, but then she wants to look at the bottom of the glass. I guess I’ll just pour less and let her go for it.

    I loved your idea about inviting her to take off her bib, I already know she can do it, but haven’t encouraged it because I DO want her to wear it while eating.

    My daughter also just learned to close a container in her opening and closing activity. She’s been opening things for weeks but today was an “aha” moment for her as she realized that she could open and close and open and close and repeat!

    1. Cool, Shelly… I love the details you’re noticing. Yes, the secret is to pour just a tiny amount of liquid into the class. Then it doesn’t matter if it spills.

  3. My 11 month old son is always doing things as I stop myself and “wait” and it has become a joy to see what he will do to figure out his predicament. I only “spot” or rescue him if it is pretty apparent that it is not safe, and I try to do the MINIMUM of help if there is some need for it. He wanted to slide into the bathtub off the edge of the tub, and I caught his foot as he slid over so he would not bang head-first, but still let him tumble in there albeit slower and then just lay there blinking as if to say “oh. i’ll fall if i do it that way.” If he’s looking as if about to fall off a chair, I try to still myself and wait for a real fall, not a jerky movement that causes me to over-react and over-correct! It is a real parenting skill to spot with grace and it is a dance between the parent knowing their child’s ability and moves and the child trusting that the parent won’t interfere! I am always annoyed at people rushing over to caution me and mess with him (hold his hand, etc) when he is doing perfectly well.

    1. Sounds great, Candace! Yes, you are so right about spotting with grace (sometimes we have to be inconspicuous, too, or it distracts) being a “real parenting skill” and a “dance”.

  4. I learned this lesson while working in a Montessori toddler room (15 months-3yrs). The little ones caught on quickly after watching the older children. They were able to pour their own water, drink from a regular cup, clean up a spill, clean off plates after snack/lunch, put dishes in dirty dish bin, and throw away their trash. They were so proud of themselves for doing it. At times it was messy, but completely worth watching them happily becoming independent.

    1. Yes, seeing the child’s pride is wonderful, isn’t it?

  5. Natural gross motor development – now that’s an exciting one! Our nearly 6 month old daughter started to roll on her tummy all on her own last weekend. It probably surprised her a little bit that she could do these things, she cried when she landed on her tummy for the first time and she quickly rolled on her back again. But now every time I put her on her mat, on the changing table, or even in her cot, she wants to roll over. I am so proud of her achievement and I am looking forward to more.

    1. Ayu, your daughter is lucky to have such a patient, sensitive, observant, appreciative, proud mommy!

  6. Yes, this has been on my mind a lot recently, too. Particularly I have been noticing it linguistically. For example, I didn’t even introduce colours to my kid until I found out a younger child I know already knows his. Really?! I didn’t even know that was possible. So now I allow for the possibility that my 19mo might be ready to at least understand colours. The same has been true of other types of words that I was (unconsciously) withholding from her ‘cos ‘she wouldn’t understand yet’… or would she?

    I haven’t been speaking in proper sentences with real pronouns for ages. I say ‘Mama is going to eat’ and ‘does baby want a banana’ a lot, instead of using ‘you’ and ‘me’. Now, I find that within days of starting to use the words around her she is ponting at daddy and saying you and pointing at herself and saying me and mine. What was I wating for?!

    Thanks for this post and the wonderful food for thought – always.

    Gauri
    LovingEarthMama.com

    1. Gauri, thank you for bringing up language comprehension and pronouns. Yes, babies do understand language much better than most of us realize. Comprehension of whole sentences and pronouns is a great “surprising skill” to add to the list.

    2. This same thing happened to me! She said you and my and mine. She also corrected herself one day. “I see a bir….I SAW a bird.” Whaaaat?!?! Amazing, this waiting and observing business….

  7. Oh Janet, I LOVE this! I wish I could get a t-shirt made up that says ‘just let me TRY’ for my 24 month old son to wear. We have been getting him to try more and more because he is often rescued (goes to nanny and poppy’s while I work and so has 200% attention all day and they are more than keen to jump to him every time something gets ‘stuck’) and now loses patience quickly and gets frustrated when something doesn’t work right away. He has been getting so good and now will really persevere with stuff. In a playgroup environment (we don’t have RIE here 🙁 ) people constantly feel the need to ‘rescue’ him when he looks a little lost. He’s a reserved fella and a thinker naturally. He’ll watch and watch and watch and then just do. Lately he’s been having a go at working something out through trial and error but not after some careful consideration first. This drives many people spare and they have to interrupt him and show him how to do something, or try to involve him in something else because he can’t possibly be happy just standing/sitting there and WATCHING! last week he stood there and watched while a lovely mum ‘taught’ him how to put together one of those wooden train tracks into a wonderful circle track, and then she showed him how to drive the trains on it and corrected him when he had the engine and the carriage around the wrong way (because they are obviously REAL trains and someone would get hurt if they were the wrong way 😉 ). I was breastfeeding Nina and was across the room so was only able to observe this interaction. The mum looked at me and beamed with pride at what she had ‘taught’ him when he started to play with the track. Little does she know that he has a wooden train track at home and he constantly builds, dismantles and rebuilds complex track systems including bridges going over the track and split tracks etc. I thought to myself, nice one Seb you got that lady to build you a track! haha

    1. Hi Katinka! Imagine what Seb was thinking while the nice woman was “teaching” him how to do something he’s already adept at. 🙂

      Hey, I love the idea about the T shirts… Let’s do it!

  8. My 11 month old learned how to climb a ladder this summer. In our cabin we have a ladder that goes up to the loft where we sleep. My 3 year old climbs it, and uses it for all kinds of crazy things. My 11 mo. had been watching and eager to try, so I let him (while standing right behind, spotting). I didn’t really think he would be able to do much but just play at the first rung. Well, after another day or 2 he was climbing like a pro! And this was before he could really even walk very well!

    1. Wow, Larissa, that is surprising! But I’ve noticed that climbing comes way before walking for some children. Great the way you are spotting and allowing him to try.

  9. Great topic, Janet! I am constantly surprised by the things my toddler can do. I don’t give her anywhere near enough credit, and I’m “trained” to relate to young children in a way that fosters their independence. You really never do know what they’re working on!

    This week, I have discovered that she can wash her own face (well!) after mealtime and choose her own clothes. She is seriously into puzzles right now, too – you’re spot on about that one!

  10. Katinka, I love your stories about your son, he sounds just like my daughter :).

    Janet, thank you for this wonderful post. I especially appreciate the caveat at the end, about sometimes giving kids permission to NOT do things that they ARE capable of doing. (E.g. my 2yr8mo daughter sometimes wanting to dress herself, sometimes not.) I feel like we often get caught in a trap of “they know how to do it so they must ALWAYS do it”…. I like the emphasis on letting them choose. (Of course, there are some things we enforce, but those are mostly for safety or behavioral reasons.)

  11. The other morning while i was nursing my 3 months baby, my 23 months son, woke up from his nap and he was asking me to take him out from his crib; i told him that i was with his sister so he had to wait. I only heard some noises and suddenly, after 20 minutes or so, he was in my bedroom with the most amazing victory face shouting: ” myself, myself ” It was a great moment to live with him!!
    Since then I make the effort to think what other things they can do, and some times i need to tell to myself to slow down (because we live in a hurry all day in the big cities like mexico city, we aren’t used to slow down neither at meal time that’s why fastfood) so i can give them what they need
    to acknowledge every day.

  12. I’ve been saving this to read until I had more time & I am so glad I did! What a lovely post. I wish I had found you 4 years ago when my kids were babies because I see so clearly now how much a child’s confidence is built by allowing them to struggle and succeed. It is so hard as a parent to let my son struggle for 5 minutes to put on a sock when I could do it for him in 5 seconds….but I know, in the long run, it is so much better for all of us to let him struggle a little.

    Love this. I’ll definitely be sharing!
    -Gina

  13. My 11 month old surprised us last month by climbing down from the couch all by herself.

    She helps us undress her (no such luck on the dressing thou) She takes off her bib to signal that she is done eating. And I was pleasantly surprised that she learned very quickly that plates stay on the table and are not a toy. Now she eats off a plate, and I am relieved at the much less mess I have to clean.

    We’re doing baby-led weaning and I am so amazed how quickly babies learn how and what to eat. Gagging is extremely rare and I feel it is because she was given the chance to feed herself as much as she was capable. She spits out the bits and pieces that she can’t chew properly (ex: grape skins), and lately pulls them out by herself from her mouth.

  14. Loved this. Perfect timing for me since I’m struggling to write a post I think is related. I am wondering, though, what other people think of this idea that’s been on my mind for a while now:

    Basic question: Can we trust babies and children to learn compassion and empathy?
    Followup question: When and *how* do we, as caregivers, get involved?

    Here’s where I was bumbling through trying to write my initial thoughts sparked by a situation at the park.
    http://alivingfamily.com/2011/08/14/keeping-your-child-from-becoming-a-bully-or-being-bullied/

    The whole thing made me think about how exactly what you are writing about (giving chances) applies to compassion. I might be taking things too far, but I’m more or less wondering what the greater worldly impact is of allowing babies and children to work out feelings and learn true compassion. As opposed to doing the right thing b/c someone told/taught me or b/c that is what is expected of me or — wanting to act out of a compassionate heart desire. I keep finding that it touches on a fundamental question of humanity: Are humans inherently good (compassionate)? …..

    I don’t want to ramble on here, but I am truly interested in this concept of applying RIE parenting to emotional development (which perhaps has been done elsewhere, it’s just new to my brain–any resources would be appreciated).

  15. Janet,
    I read all your posts back and forth.My daughter was pretty independent but recently she started to struggle.I was really upset with that.I took your advice and have to report a big success.

    I was always letting her explore things.She wasn’t spoon-fed.She started eating finger foods instantly.At the age of 12 months she was holding a pen almost like an adult.She eats with spoon since she is a year old and she started eating with fork 2 months ago.I’m not talking about attempts,but about proper eating.

    She is climbing up and walking down the stairs very well.I spent hours with her a few months back as she wanted to learn how to do it so badly.So I never helped but I was there in case she would fall,so I can catch her.You know what?It never happened.She climbs up couches, chairs and other high places.She also learnt to be more careful without me constantly disallowing her to go to the edge of a bed or something.

    She can build really high towers from mega bloks,although it says in most of developmental guides that at her age children are able to build towers from up to 6 blocks.Not if you let them to do it themselves.

    We have puzzles, shape sorters or blocks that can be put together and they make different bears dressed in different clothes.She was interested for a while,but gave up for now.

  16. My 12 months old daughter plays by herself for ages..not often but she does it. She sits there, ‘singing’ to herself, exploring anything and everything she finds. (It’s all safe, no worries! 🙂 )

    With regards to climbing up and down: We’ve spent a lot of time in the playground at the climbing frame where she stood and watched the other toddlers go up and down. This was when she was 10 months old. After watching for some time she started attempting it herself. After standing at the bottom of the steps and moving one leg back and forth for some time she stepped onto the first step and just a few minutes later climbed up. All by herself (with a protecting hand close by). It was amazing. And we didn’t help or push her one bit. She’s now up those steps in a flash. In regards to coming down: she hasn’t realised yet that she has to move her hands along to steady herself, she has however figured out how to go downstairs.

    I think I’ve read here somewhere to ‘never put your baby in to a position they can’t get themselves into or out of’. I try to do that all the time. We are guilty of walking with her (holding her hands) but she is so close to walking by herself and we don’t push her. She’s barely holding on.

    Anyway…long story short: good article. 😀

    Nev

    1. Thanks, Nev! Yes, “never put your baby into a position they can’t get into themselves” is a good rule of thumb for safety, especially. If the child can get into a position, he can usually get out of it independently (with spotting). Children who are used to being positioned — placed up on steps, slides, climbing structures, etc., develop a false sense of security in those positions and might take unsafe chances because they assume they’ll be caught or helped down. It’s also important for babies to feel as capable as possible and they don’t feel capable and confident when they are “stuck” in an adult imposed position, dependent on an adult to get them “unstuck”.

      Love the “singing to herself”!

      1. Totally agree. 🙂

        She now knows to move her hands along the handrail and has managed to walk down by herself twice. She’ll be 13 months. Yay. 😀

        Nev

  17. My daughter takes off her diaper herself at 10 months. My son never ever did that. I don’t think it’s uncommon but still it’s interesting and yes, inconvenient at times!

  18. The core concept–the self-determination of children–applies all the way through school. Children are most at risk in the early years of pre-school and elementary school for becoming demoralized about their ability to lead their own learning. (Just wrote about that last week: http://bit.ly/MCuIL0

  19. avatar Angela Garcia says:

    Our 10 month old learned to control the portable CD player. She loves music and one day surprised us by turning the volume knob and advancing the track. The following day she began taking the CD out when she was ready to hear something different. It’s amazing how observant babies are and how little we actually have to “teach.” I feel like in some ways she was also trying to communicate to us that music was something she was truly enjoying and wanted to have some control over how she enjoyed it. She is 15 months now and still LOVES music!

    Thanks for the great post, Janet!

  20. avatar Catherine says:

    Thanks for yet another interesting, inspiring and thought provoking read.

    As a teacher in an Infants ECE centre I am very blessed to be able to observe children chosing, creating and achieving their own challenges on a daily basis.

    I also have my own children, two boys one aged 5years, and one 9mths.
    When our 5 year old was very young I hovered over him, scaffolding his every move, not really knowing any better. Now, he is a capable and confident child, though he does become easily frustrated at times, and when he does he relies on the help of an adult (even if only verbal).
    Since he was born Ive learnt a lot more about trusting children, babies especially, to guide their own learning.
    Therefore, our 9mth old who is almost walking, has been crawling since 4 months, but only chose to ‘sit to play’ a week ago! (We have had so many comments, eg:”but hes such an early crawler, its so strange he is not sitting.”) Even at this early age he is very persistant with challenges and does not get frustrated very often, if at all.

    What I have learnt has also made a big impact on my own personal teaching philosophy and practices.

    Thank you for challenging my knowledge and beliefs, and for making me continuosly question and expand my skills both as a teacher and as a Mum.
    – Catherine Stanton.

  21. We started baby-led weaning with our small seven month old and I think it fits really well with the RIE approach too. Just last week I thought I would give him some water in a small shot-sized cup (actually a lid from a baby bottle). I was very shocked when he picked it up with two hands and sipped from the top (it was very full so he wouldn’t have to tip it back far). He couldn’t tip it back to get the rest so spilt it on the highchair and started teething on the cup (!) but it made me realise I shouldn’t make any assumptions about what he can/can’t do. Ok, his skills aren’t “perfect” – he still makes a mess but lovely to see them developing!

  22. What about when my three year old still will not dress himself? He is three years, three months old and he also will not feed himself with utensils. He would rather eat with his hands or not eat at all. I also have a ten month old and so managing feeding and dressing two children is tough for me to do! He ate food on my lap until I got pregnant again. On the other hand, my ten month old is already trying to use a fork and I love to see this! My son is very independent with every thing else, although he will not stay in his car seat when he climbs into it. He is advanced with gross motor skills and never had a problem in that regard. I would love to hear any suggestions you can give. He will dress himself and use utensils when I force him, but it just doesn’t feel right to force him.

  23. To give more information, I did not start requiring him to dress himself until about 2 weeks ago. Until then, I asked him to do it but when he would not, I did it for him without judgement. Also, we are having him assessed for mild autism. He doesn’t have a diagnosis yet though. But we just need some suggestions.

  24. When my now 18 month old was just over a year, I found her in her room sitting on the floor with her older sister’s a crayon and coloring book just going to town with that crayon. I had no idea she even knew what they were for! We were so impressed!

  25. Just last night my 5 month old was reclining in a bean bag gnawing on his Sophie (teething) and he dropped her below his feet. I thought to myself, there is not a chance he can get that but instead of handing her back, I waited. He kicked his feet until she flipped onto his legs, then lifted his legs up in the air until she tumbled into his hands. I turned to my husband and said, “wasn’t that amazing!” And I immediately said a little thank you to RIE!

  26. Yes! We found our 10-month-old sitting on top of a low table where we’d stowed her abacus. I was delighted! My husband wanted to get her down. I said “Let’s see.” She got herself down, sure enough! She cried a little because she toppled over but she was fine–then did it again and was totally fine. I knew instinctively we should let her try to get down from where she’d climbed up to.

  27. I’ve followed the RIE advice to talk to my baby from the beginning, involving him. I also ask him if he’d like to raise his bottom before I do it for him during changing. He really surprised me when he was 3 months he started doing it himself!
    And even more impressed I was, when he was 4 months he started raising his bottom to signal that he pooped. Of course he’s now 4,5 months and he does it just for fun, still – babies are incredible and capable!

  28. avatar Janny Morales says:

    My family & I were spending last Christmas at my father’s 2-story vacation home. At one point, I heard a strange noise & looked around for the 11-month-old baby. I was confident that he couldn’t get up the (closed in & carpeted) stairs since he had been a late crawler and wasn’t too dilifent about the baby gate.

    We found him in his bedroom upstairs, quietly playing with some toys. I about had a heart attack & am a little ashamed at this parenting fail, but still so proud & amazed that he was not only able to climb all the p up, but had the confidence & independence to try. He continues to surprise me with his climbing abilities–luckily, not because I’m not watching!

  29. i have been following your site for only about a year now(wish I had found it soon!) and have worked on trusting my son Elliot more and his abilities. Recently a few months before his second birthday, Elliot would climb on the chair then figured out how to sit on the table and just smiled and giggled at his accomplishment. One day I saw him standing in the chair so continued on task saying “be careful buddy”. When I turned to check on him again he climbed up on the table over to his high chair, stepped into it and sat down then burst into laughter! I was so amazed at him and have learned to be ok with letting him figure out his ability on his own. Thank you for the encouragement!

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