Conventional wisdom might call it blog suicide to suggest negatives about a practice that probably 90% of parents do with their babies (n.b. – a very unscientific survey). Is it really worth the grief to get into it?
After struggling with this for a while now, my passion for natural gross motor development won out. So, I sincerely hope that you’ll read the following with an open mind (or stop now).
My husband and I sat our first baby up without a second thought, propping her on the couch at just a few weeks old to take pictures of her in her fabulous new baby wardrobe. Looking back at the photos, this was not a flattering position. She looks slumped and frozen — neither comfy nor happy. In one particularly undignified photo she’s dressed in a garish orange court-jester-inspired jumpsuit and matching hat, a gift from a witty friend. It’s clear from the scowl on our newborn’s face, she didn’t see the humor.
By the time our baby was 4 months old, I was attending RIE Classes where I was inspired to provide her abundant time to move freely and allow her to roll from back to tummy, pivot, scoot and eventually discover sitting all on her own. I’ll never forget her sitting for the very first time after rocking on her knees, then rolling back to her side and almost getting there for several days. She had been playing on the floor in our minuscule hotel room in Paris, and suddenly there she was, sitting in front of an armoire, surprised to find a reflection of herself in the mirror.
The splendor of “baby-owned” accomplishments like these is one of the reasons I recommend giving infants the opportunity to learn to sit on their own and not propping or positioning them. Here are some others…
1. Natural Gross Motor Development
Many of the ideas Magda Gerber taught were based on the research and clinical work of renowned Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler (1902-1984), who was Magda’s friend and mentor. One of Dr. Pikler’s revolutionary contributions to infant care was the outcome of her keen interest in the physiology of motor development that was not restricted, aided or taught. Through her many years of research, observation and experience, Pikler concluded that when infant development is allowed to occur naturally, without interference, there are not only physical benefits such as grace and ease of movement, but psychological and cognitive benefits as well…
“The learning process will play a major role in the whole later life of the human being. Through this kind of development, the infant learns his ability to do something independently, through patient and persistent effort. While learning during motor development to turn on his belly, to roll, to creep, sit, stand, and walk, he is not only learning those movements, but also *how to learn*. He learns to do something on his own, to be interested, to try out, to experiment. He learns to overcome difficulties. He comes to know the joy and satisfaction that is derived from his success, the result of his patience and persistence.” – Dr. Emmi Pikler, Peaceful Babies – Contented Mothers
2. Restricting movement
Sitting babies up prematurely prevents them from rolling, twisting, scooting, or doing much of anything else. When an infant is placed in this position before she is able to attain it independently, she usually cannot get out of it without falling, which does not encourage a sense of security or physical confidence.
The babies I’ve observed playing this way look as if they’re pinned to the floor, immobile from the waist down. While other infants are moving their limbs freely on their backs, rolling from back to tummy and beginning to pivot, scoot or army crawl, the seated babies can only bend at the trunk to reach objects of interest. If a toy rolls out of reach, the seated babies must depend on an adult to get it back. Of course, infants are brilliantly adaptive. I’ve seen babies routinely placed in this position learn to swivel around in a circle and eventually mobilize themselves by scooting on their bottoms.
Babies like to continue doing what they know (and the habits we create for them can easily become their “needs”). When we sit babies up, they usually begin to expect and want that. Conversely, if you don’t sit a baby up, she won’t desire the position. If parents want to backtrack and try to break the sitting habit, there will probably be an adjustment period and some complaints from the baby, who has to be encouraged in small doses to get comfortable on her back. This is a position from which her motor development can progress naturally.
“Giving infants, even if they have developmental delays, the freedom to move in accordance with their innate impulses may seem radical, but it is essential to their becoming persons with uncompromised self esteem.” –Ruth Anne Hammond, Respecting Babies
4. Delaying, skipping motor milestones
When parents write to me concerned about their infants not reaching milestones like rolling or crawling, it usually turns out that they’ve been restricting movement in devices like infant seats, jumpers and saucers, or sitting the baby up. Babies can’t be expected to develop motor skills without the time and freedom to do so. If they are stuck sitting, infants sometimes even skip the other important milestones (rolling, scooting and crawling).
“I believe in giving your baby a safe space in which to play and letting her move freely and develop on her own without assisting her. Refrain from propping her up to sit or helping her roll over. She has an innate desire to move through these developmental sequences and has inborn knowledge of how to do it in a way that is “right” for her. She does this at her own pace and she gets pleasure from doing it.” –Magda Gerber
5. Independent play
Sitting babies up is a major roadblock to independent play. Since premature sitting is a dependent, static position, babies aren’t inclined to enjoy staying this way for very long (and this is assuming they don’t fall over).
6. Flexibility, posture, form
“Consider how hard it is for most adults to sit on the floor with their pelvis fully under them. More people are realizing how hard this is as sitting meditation becomes more “en vogue”, just as yoga made people realize how short their hamstrings are. But, if you give a kid the chance to find their own way to sitting it means they have properly engineered their bodies in the best way possible “for them” through their own discovery and movement, and of course learning how to form curves in their spine and hips, how to find the flexibility in their ankle and knee joints. When given the chance to do it on their own, it is a gradual organic process and the “form” follows the functionality.”
7. Loss of transitional postures
There is the ‘reclining on one’s side’ position that usually leads to sitting, which I fondly call “The Male Centerfold”. There are many other postures that occur between the biggies like rolling, scooting and sitting. Some are variations unique to the particular child, and if we believe in the wisdom of the body (as I do), they each have a valuable developmental purpose. I remind parents to take pictures, because most of these are charming and short-lived.
“Loving parents, eager to help, may hinder their baby’s growth by aiding her to move in ways unnatural for her. I encourage you to sit back and simply observe your baby as she moves through each stage of physical development. In this way you will be able to relax and enjoy your baby, and she will be supported by your attentiveness and interest.” -Gerber
8. What’s the rush?
Babies build self-confidence when they are trusted, accepted and appreciated for what they can (and choose to) do. They’ll achieve it all in due time.
“Time and time again I have asked parents, “How old were you when you learned to sit?” So far, nobody could remember. What is the benefit of early sitting? Why are so many people hooked on concepts such as “sooner is better”? Since our life span is getting longer – why not slow down? Why are concepts such as readiness and motivation hardly mentioned?”-Gerber
I share advice in this podcast for undoing the sitting habit:
Unfolding of Infants’ Natural Gross Motor Development by the Pikler Institute
My compilation, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
Milla Finds Her Own Way, a Pikler-inspired DVD by Maureen Perry, NZ Infant And Toddler Consortium
See How They Move, featuring Magda Gerber, by Resources for Infant Educarers
“No Tummy Time Necessary” by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
(Photo by chris jd on Flickr)