elevating child care

Sitting Babies Up – The Downside

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.

3. Habits

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

Body scientist and Feldenkrais Practitioner Irene Gutteridge (guest writer of “The Case Against Tummy Time” and producer of the famous Baby Liv videos), offers her perspective:

“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

 

Recommended resources:

Books

Unfolding of Infants’ Natural Gross Motor Development by the Pikler Institute

Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson and Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

Respecting Babies: A New Look At Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach by Ruth Anne Hammond

Videos/DVD

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

Articles:

Freedom of Movement and Self-Awareness”, by Ruth Anne Hammond, Respecting Babies

No Tummy Time Necessary” by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

Set Me Free”, “Don’t Stand Me Up”, “Messing With Mother Nature” and “9 Reasons Not To Walk Babies” (on this blog)

 

 

(Photo by chris jd on Flickr)

 

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132 Responses to “Sitting Babies Up – The Downside”

  1. avatar Angela says:

    Hi Janet,

    I know this article was posted a little while ago but I just wanted to say that I recently discovered your blog and I truly believe that you are very wise! I wish I had discovered your site before I had my little guy but apparently I’ve been doing a lot of good things for him. I bought a baby sling before he was born thinking I could get a lot of stuff done around the house with him snuggled up to me. Little did I know how uncomfortable it was for me, and he didn’t look very content in it either. I opted to put him on the floor on a blanket with different toys scattered around him. Once in a while I would flip him on his tummy so he could see different views of the room and strengthen his neck muscles. But I found that I could get way more things done when I put him down and gave him freedom. Now that he’s almost two, he plays independently very well and is happy with just a book and a toy or two. Anyone that’s ever baby-sat for us has always told us that he’s such an “easy” baby :)

  2. avatar Alaina says:

    Hello, I havent seen any response to mellissa susan or kristens concerns in which I also have a 3 month old with bad acid reflux who finds it relieving and compfortable to be sat in an upright position, also to be cradeled on her stomach instead of back! She crys in severe pain when laid on her back unless I have had her propped up for a good minute then she likes to lay flat on the floor for a couple second to relieve the pressure on her tummy but cant stand sittin in a “reclined” position in her seat its always to be positioned straight up but also she likes for me to try different positions with her she cant sit n the same for very long without gas pains interrupting!!

  3. avatar Klari1985 says:

    Love it! Just one thing though, a baby loves to be upright in order to learn and see. So carrying a newborn in a proper carrier (a scarf for example…) is the right natural way. Babies are supposed to be carried all day and be in arms of a caretaker. :) look at jean liedloff’s “continuum concept “. Says it all :) but thank you for the very informative article!

    • avatar janet says:

      Klari – thank you for sharing about a common misconception. Babies love to be upright when that is what they’re used to, but they see just as well from all angles. They don’t need to see exactly as we do from a vertical position. We condition babies to want these things through our choices for them.

      I did look at Jean Leidloff’s book and I shared my disagreements with her approach here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/03/bonding-with-babies-where-rie-and-attachment-parenting-differ/

      • avatar Melissa says:

        My daughter is two months now and I agree with what you were stating that propping her on pillows is extremely unnatural and anything restricting her movement is unhelpful developmentally. However, when we were in the hospital from the day she was born she wanted to be looking at the world from an upright position and let us know it through crying. At that point she was a newborn and we weren’t expecting her to sit upright or want to be held in that manner but experimented different ways to hold her and that was what most soothed her.

        In the womb babies do not lay flat on their backs, but move around. Some prefer being upright. My daughter was upsidedown for at least four months, which may be why she didn’t want to lay down and observe the world. How can it be unnatural to put a baby in a wrap such as a mobi wrap or a carrier and hold them close? When I first used the mobi wrap I was impressed by how close it felt to swaddling but also allowed the baby to be close to your body heat and heartbeat. In my opinion it helped my baby feel more comfortable and as if they were in a womb, which would lead me to believe that it is a natural way for a baby to be carried.

        One of the ways the la le leche suggests you breastfeed naturally is laying the baby stomach to stomach and allowing them to find your nipple. Or the football hold. Both of those positions are not letting the baby lay on its back and explore. I would consider the football hold pretty much forcing the child into a sitting position. I wouldn’t say it’s unnatural, because I know moms who find that position the most natural position for what works for both them and the baby.

        The one thing I have learned from breastfeeding and my baby is that there the “natural way” is the baby’s preference and also what your instincts tell you that feels right. I agree that putting a baby in a bumbo seat or exersaucer before they can sit up by themselves does not make the baby look natural or comforable. It’s the same idea as having flashy toys with lots of lights and music instead of simple household items or less interactive toys: it does not allow the baby to explore on his or her own. However, I would never say that I “conditioned” my child to want to be in an upright “unnatural” position. She lets me know when she is tired of being on her back exploring the world just the same as she tells me she doesn’t want to be on her stomach doing tummy time. All babies are unique individuals.

  4. avatar sarah says:

    Hi Janet, just wanted to say I read your posts all the way from New Zealand and really appreciate the information they provide. When my daughter was 6 weeks old we started attending a playgroup that showed a DVD of Magda and the RIE philosophys. I was so pleased to have another outlook on development.I feel there are huge socisocial pressures for children to reach milestones and ive always felt it was crazy so it was lovely to know I was not alone in my thinking. We have plunket nurses in nz that really push for tummy time from 4weeks. I would try it and my daughter hated it I would feel so guilty. 2 weeks later I saw the DVD and no longer persisted with it. She is 8 months old now and now that she can roll herself across the room loves being on her front as she can get herself out of it. I always felt she had wonderful neck strength and this also helped me in believing tummy time wasn’t necessary. I like another reader however found that she didn’t like being constantly held as she spent a lot of awake time on the floor on her back. She would often cry when held by my in-laws and I sous always say she likes her own space it took several weeks for them to realise she was so happy on her back and that that had to observe rather than hold. She does however stand on my lap something her grandparents have really encouraged her to do and this is something I will definately avoid with any other children. Thankyou so much for your posts Im learning so much from them.

  5. avatar Andrea says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Thank you!

  6. avatar Elexa says:

    Hi!
    I was just sharing this post with the parents at my early childhood center. I TOTALLY agree with your article!!! I have yet to see it fail once!

    One of the comments below made me think of an issue I’ve been seeing more and more lately. Acid reflux and lots of spitting up. Sitting up right does seem to help this, but it also bothers me for all the reasons you mentioned. What could be causing an increase in the number of acid reflux diagnosis? Is it really that common of a problem? And how can I help a child in my classroom who has this issue while not restricting the movement I so desperately want to offer them?
    Thank you for advice!

  7. avatar Christy says:

    I recently found your blog through a Facebook page and so far I’m intrigued. Anyway, this particular post has me a little giddy. I don’t have many sitting devices for my baby mainly because they’re expensive and not used that much, But also because my little man doesn’t like them. I have helped him sit up here recently but I’ve noticed that because I give him ample amounts of floor time he is a lot more mobile than other children his age, five months, and He’s already trying to sit up on his own! I am so happy that I found this post because it has encouraged me to stop “helping” him reach his milestones and instead step back a little bit and just watch him grow. Thank you for sharing this post and I look forward to exploring your blog more.

  8. avatar Bridget Shetty says:

    I am curious about the recommendations for introducing food to babies when you allow them to come to sitting naturally. If a child hasn’t developed the ability to sit on their own, do you recommend waiting to put them in a high chair until after that milestone is reached?

    • avatar Amanda says:

      Once a baby needs solids, they need to be sitting. The idea is to limit sitting time as much as possible. My daughter is 8 months old and doesn’t sit on her own yet. She has to be in a seated position in the car seat and in a high chair, of course. These are the only times she is in this position. Otherwise, she’s still horizontal on the floor. She can roll with such confidence over our entire house!

  9. avatar Alison says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. We have been sitting our 6-month old daughter up for about a month now that she “can”… She’s protesting now that we are laying her on her back (more) to play. Any tips or ideas to ease this transition BACK to playing on her back?? Start out slow?? Thank you!

  10. avatar Amanda says:

    I have never been one to comment on a blog, but I am so thankful for this post that I had to make an exception. You are so brave to have posted this and I admire that. I have a little one (8months) and it has been such a struggle for me to have others understand why I don’t sit her up or stand her up. My Mother just does not understand why I don’t want walkers, saucers, and jumpers for my daughter. I am also a teacher and I know that these early movements are directly related to how a child learns later on in life–HOW they relate to world around them. What could be more important? It’s VITAL that we allow our children the space and freedom to move in these early years.
    Thank you so much for your post. I will be brave and share it with others. Perhaps one day we will be among the majority and we won’t have to face these awkward moments where we ask adults not to sit or stand our babies before they’re ready.
    Love to you!
    Amanda

  11. avatar Erin says:

    Hi Janet, I love this advice! My son is 7 months old and I’ve been following your articles since he was 3 months old. He discovered rolling onto his tummy on his own with very little frustration. However when he’s done on his tummy he gets irate that he can’t roll back to his back. Thinking I was following your advice, I let him try to figure it out on his own. This has resulted in the biggest crying fits I’ve seen in his short life. We have spent days in a cycle of rolling-happy-tantrum. At my wits end, I’m now helping him roll on his back. I don’t want to rush him to learn how to roll the other way, but he is not satisfied slowly discovering it on his own. Do you have any advice for me? Thank you.

  12. avatar whitney says:

    I have a question. One of my concerns is the flattening of the head from a baby spending too much time on their back. I try to find a variety of “activities/positions” to avoid this as I am not able to hold him as much as I would like.

  13. avatar Jen says:

    Not entirely convinced by all this. While I can see that propping a baby in a sitting position may delay crawling or them learning to get into a sitting position by themselves. Doing so has numerous other benefits which may outweigh delayed crawling. Sitting means a baby is better able to see faces and interact with people in social situations, can play for longer period with toys without assistance, and it is most certainly a better position for being read too, looking at books and for singing songs/rhymes, etc. All of these are activities that foster language and other social skills, including empathy and mastering gestures, as well as hand skills like the pincer grip and purposefully coordinating both hands. Why are you assuming it is better to delay these skills by having a baby spend more time lying on their back over skills like crawling, which I’m not convinced is all that useful anyway given that walking soon follows and babies never crawl.

    • avatar shirley says:

      crawling develops the muscles in the legs and the gross motor movement connected to kinaesthetic memory and learning.

  14. avatar Vathiswa says:

    My bby is 4months old but she trying to sit im worried coz his a prem of 8months and im worried.Is it a good thing for her?

  15. avatar Aunt Betty says:

    Hi Janet,

    Again another wonderful article. Yes babies are much happier when allowed freedom of movement. Besides freedom to move it is important for the caregiver to move slowly and confidently when caring for and observing the baby. A less stressed baby can better focus on mastering motor and life skills.

  16. avatar shirley says:

    Hey, I read some research some time ago (sorry, can’t source – forgotten) that described children with learning difficulties taken BACK through the gross motor development skills as a program which re-wired the brain somehow and helped them to learn in a much better way and catch up with peers.

    What I do know is this: every NATURAL movement a baby makes is designed to teach the body the basis for the next stage of development. At the same time the process is wired into the brain in ways that I have yet to understand. (Neuroplasticity has something to do with it). EG A new born on its back develops movement first in the eyes then as the eyes move around (over time) the body then follows and the kinaesthetic process sets in. Repetition and extension build the muscle memory. When this is interrupted by us ‘propping them up’ or getting them to stand too soon, the muscle/brain connection doesn’t get the chance to connect……that’s all I know about it without quoting research.

  17. avatar Val says:

    Wonderful tips and advices! Thanks for sharing your knowledge generously!

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