Many months after becoming a mom I realized a shocking truth: we don’t need to buy every contraption on display at the baby super store! I had fallen into the trap of believing I needed all the technology that was available. I naively assumed that these products must be in stores because they were helpful and necessary, and no one had advised me to do otherwise.
‘Luckily,’ I found hand-me-downs from family and friends, and so I was well-equipped with a bouncy seat, electric swing, and a couple of C-shaped pillows in which you can place the baby in a sitting position. If I had added walkers, jumpers and baby saucers, my gizmo inventory would have been complete.
Later I learned that the real requirements for a newborn are a crib, bassinet or co-sleeper, a car seat, carrier (and/or stroller), a changing table, and doorway gates — so that safe play areas can be created. Playpens make life with a young infant easier, especially if you can buy or borrow two, and have one outside also. The other stuff is not only a waste of money, but can even be detrimental to a baby’s development.
If a voice of reason could be heard through the din of marketing, consumerism and peer pressure, all of which prey upon a new parent’s self-doubt, it would say: “What did babies do before all this gadgetry existed? Did babies walk before there were walkers, jump before there were jumpers? Were children long ago deficient, unintelligent, physically awkward, slower and less capable? Were they less loved?”
Similarly, we can ask whether today’s high-technology for babies gives parents more free time. My sense is that they do not. In fact, when we place an infant in constrictive apparatuses or parent-controlled positions, we can create a habit of dependency that can later undermine our quest for free time. The baby who gets used to being situated by adults is inclined to continue to require adult attention, instead of developing the joyful habit of independent play.
An infant can move most freely when he is placed on his back. Some doctors suggest ‘tummy time’ for an infant as young as one or two months old. But infant expert Magda Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, believed that infants should be trusted to ‘discover’ the tummy position when ready, without our assistance.
Here’s an experiment: lie on your belly and then lie on your back; compare the two positions with respect to comfort and mobility. Now imagine you have limited upper body and neck strength and can barely lift your head. Do you feel stuck? An infant placed on his back in a safe place can see all around him, stretch, arch his back, move his limbs freely, examine his hands and feet, even find his thumb and self-soothe. Our body functions best when we are free to move. I found evidence of this fact when I visited a friend and her son.
Cheryl’s four-month-old boy spent most of his waking hours in a bouncy seat, a seat that elevates his back to an almost vertical angle and secures the baby by a T-strap at the bottom of the chair. I used a bouncy seat with my first baby, too, and would never dream of mentioning possible ‘downsides’ of using the seat to Cheryl. Even if she asked, I’d be hesitant to say something that might sound judgmental. Most of us are extremely sensitive to perceived criticism as new parents (now how would I know that?)
But when Cheryl shared her worries about her son’s constipation, I had to bite my tongue. I couldn’t stop thinking that if I was unnecessarily stuck in that seat all day, unable to stretch or move without feeling myself slip down the seat, I’d be ‘irregular’ too!
There are not only physical, but also possible emotional consequences when a baby is strapped into a seat or propped up. As infant expert Magda Gerber cautioned, “Every time we put an infant in a position she cannot change all by herself, we deprive her from moving freely. So she feels passive, helpless, and less confident.”
Doctors often advise parents to place an infant in a sitting position when he is six months old. However, just as a baby rolls when he is ready, a baby also finds his own ability to move from a horizontal position on the floor to sitting upright when he is able. When the child achieves this position naturally he can smoothly transition himself back into a horizontal position for mobilization when he wishes.
Doctor’s ‘checklists’ neglect to acknowledge the wide range of normal motor development, and often breed parental fear and doubt. Worry that our child will ‘fall behind’ is one of the reasons we all find it difficult to resist the temptation to place our baby in a sitting position or hold him up to stand. Another is that adults see the world from an upright position, and we perceive it as preferable to a horizontal view. Our child may seem to like it, especially when that is what he’s used to. (He might also like to devour a giant hot fudge sundae, but that doesn’t mean we’d give him one! )
Parenting is sometimes looking beyond the moment, the week, or even the month to establish healthy habits that serve our child best in the long term. Encouraging natural gross motor development is worth the effort.
If our infant is accustomed to us placing him in a sitting position, then he may become less willing to attempt his own positions independently. Rather than enjoying all he can do, he gets in the habit of expecting the parent to intercede. This was the dynamic I observed between Robert and Shelly.
Seven-month-old Robert cried while lying on the floor until his mother, Shelley, placed him in a sitting position. I had been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to encourage Shelly to allow Robert more time on his back. A few times, we’d seen him roll to his stomach and began to scoot forward. But, even though his mobility was completely hampered while sitting, he now wanted to do what he was used to doing, or perhaps he wanted to do what he thought his mother expected. Instead, he lost his balance, fell and cried again. Robert’s helplessness was reinforced by his mom’s well-meaning actions.
When our infants are free to develop motor abilities without artificial aid or the restriction of baby apparatuses, they progress independently and confidently in their own unique way. The biggest challenge for parents is also one of the biggest gifts we can bestow on a child: waiting for readiness.
“We believe that the infant should be able to move and explore freely, to choose and change his own body position, to come and go as he wants — within the safe and challenging environment we create.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect
I share more about natural development in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting