How To Stop Sitting Your Baby Up (It’s Not Too Late)

In this episode: A concerned mom realizes she’s been interfering in her baby’s gross motor development by restricting movement and wonders if there are steps she can take to help get her baby get back on track.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury and in this episode of Unruffled, I’m going to be talking about something completely different. Most of my podcasts, really all of my podcasts so far, have been about behavior issues. This one is going to be in response to a parent asking about propping her child up to sit. So I’ll be talking a little about natural motor development and how to switch gears if one wants to start doing it more that way and they haven’t been.

So here’s the message I received from Mel:

“Hi Janet, I’m so thankful to have found you and Magda Gerber through you. I have kind of a pressing question for you concerning my almost six-month-old. Unfortunately, we’ve been propping him up to sit since, well, a long time. Now when I leave him on his back, it doesn’t take long before he’s screaming, usually already rolled over on his belly. By that point, I can’t help but pick him up. How do I reteach him to learn on his own? Did I miss the crucial time for learning to take place? I would so appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.”

Well, I first want to answer right away, “Did I miss a crucial time?” No, definitely not. Natural motor development is an aspect of respectful parenting or, actually, specifically the RIE approach developed by Magda Gerber, also through the work of her mentor Dr. Emmi Pikler, and this is definitely an aspect I recommend, but it’s not make or break in terms of being a respectful parent. A lot of children are raised without this and they’re fine. This is a detail that I really appreciate and have appreciated in my children for a number of reasons, and it is something to consider, but again, not make or break.

I often get questions about this. “How do I change tracks? I’ve been propping my baby up, or I’ve been pulling my baby up to stand, or walking my baby around holding their hands. Oh, and my baby likes this now, really likes this, wants this and if I don’t do it, my baby gets upset. So what do I do? I’ve got to keep doing it, right? Or maybe it’s too late?

The really good news here is: definitely not, because babies as we’ve all heard, young children are very adaptable and they’re always ready to make changes. They’re not ready to make them seamlessly. They’re not ready to make them without expressing their opinion about them, or their feelings around that change. So as long as we know that, all we need is confidence in our decision, conviction that we are doing the best thing for our child at this moment.

And this attitude holds true with a lot of things: boundaries that aren’t easy for us, changing sleep habits, perhaps, because we realize that our child’s not getting a good nights sleep, we’re not getting a good nights sleep, and this is going to be better for our family and better for our child, but maybe not what our child wants in the moment. So it’s really important to approach these transitions that we’re trying to make with a lot of confidence, knowing that this is the great parenting stuff, this is the hard stuff.

It’s much easier to just keep our child happy and avoid them feeling unhappy about anything, or complaining about anything. That’s much, much easier than doing these harder things because we love our child so much that we want to be the best possible parent for them, even if it’s harder for us and a little harder for them in the moment. We’re seeing the big picture. That’s our job as parents, always. Babies and toddlers and young children, they can’t really do that. They don’t have that frame of reference. They don’t have that understanding. We do and that’s why God invented parents, I think.

Okay, so in this case, they’ve been propping him up to sit and, yes, children tend to like this, because everybody’s smiling at them and they’re seeing the world from this different position or maybe they’ve been used to that because they’ve been carried in an upright position and so this is already what they’re used to and, yeah, they want to do what they’re used to.

But if you really look at these babies, if you really observe them, you can see that they’re pretty much frozen from the waste down. They are not free to move. If they do move, try to move out of that position, they topple over a lot of the time and they’re stuck. They’re not able to army crawl or work on crawling on their knees and getting to the object that they want to get to.

This also effects play. If we want to foster independent playtime for our children, which I highly recommend, because it’s the gift that keeps on giving for all of us. It’s the wonderful way that babies learn and show us what they’re interested in, rather than the other way around and it’s how they deepen their knowledge about all kinds of things. It’s how they develop a long attention span, because they’re falling their own interests. It’s how they learn to love learning. Learning is fun, learning is exploring, experimenting. It’s a joy. It’s a natural instinct.

So when a child is dependent on us to place them in a position, they are essentially starting off play dependently without the freedom to make choices. So again, this is a very positive change to make if ones willing to make it, or wants to make it. And the way to do it is, as with all other changes, to be honest, be respectful, cop to the fact that you were doing it differently and you’ve realized that, that’s not as positive as allowing your child to obtain those positions independently and choose them.

So here’s how this looks moment to moment… We place our child down, always doing this slowly and letting our baby know what’s going on, not just plopping our child down and expecting that that’s going to make them feel comfortable and not dumped. So doing this slowly, gradually, even talking about it a step before. “Oh, after we finish changing your diaper, it’s going to be time for you to have some playtime. So I’ll be laying you down in your play area, or in your crib,” or in your playpen, or wherever it is, or outside on the grass, on a blanket, and then you slowly do that and you sit down right next to your baby.

Actually it’s even better if you go into the play area sitting down with your baby in your arms, maybe in a more horizontal position. If they’re absolutely not used to that then they probably won’t let you do that. But if possible, holding them in a more horizontal position and then giving it a moment for them to look around, be just sitting with you, relaxed, and then ask. “Are you ready for me to place you down? Are you ready for playtime?”

And then slowly, gradually, gently placing our child down. Being careful to not just let the head drop down onto the floor. That’s something that I was doing at first when I first went to a RIE class. I was kind of letting my baby lie down and then that head was going down, clunk, at the end and I learned to let my hands glide through so that the head is gently going down. It makes a big difference, you know, children like any of us, we don’t want to get plopped down. We want it to be gentle and smooth.

So then you’re there, you’re present, you’re paying attention, you’re not trying to multi task and do other things and your baby makes a sound. I would respond immediately. “Huh, I here you saying something. What are you saying?” Not assuming the baby’s saying, “I want to sit up,” because that’s our fear taking us there. So not assuming that, but just really seeing and being open and curious.

And then let’s say that the crying escalates. “Wow, you don’t sound comfortable here. You don’t sound too happy right now.” Whatever it is, your words don’t really matter. It’s just the fact hat you are engaging in a conversation with your baby from a calm perspective, trying not to come into this with all this trepidation. Oh, this isn’t gonna work. I’m putting her down. Oh, no, she’s gonna go crazy. Trying to put all those worries aside and just being there at the slow pace that our babies live in. They do not live in this quick world that we’re all used to.

So then let’s say the baby keeps crying, or maybe cries harder, or makes a loud noise. At that point, I would still try to do less than scooping her up, but again, very present, very responsive. Sometimes this approach is misinterpreted as you must wait for a certain amount of time and you let your baby cry and then you help them. No, we’re there right away, responding, looking at them. We’re giving them our full attention.

And then maybe touch your baby. Gently caress your babies arm or something, “Oh, wow, I hear you. I hear that.”

Next thing, I would lie down right next to the baby and let her know that she still has my attention, she still has the closeness in this position.

Then if that continues, she’s still not happy, then I would say, “Hmm.. it seems like you’re really uncomfortable like this right now, so I’m going to pick you up. Gonna give you a little break.” Or maybe asking first, even better, “Would you like me to pick you up?” Putting your hands out as you’re asking and then waiting to see. Some babies kick their feet. They kick their legs when they want to say, yes, yes, yes! But giving your baby the time for that communication, which lets your baby know that you really do see a person there, and you want to communicate, you want to hear, you want to know what’s going on. You want to be precise in your responses and not just make assumptions. You want a two way conversation.

So then, you pick your baby up. At that point, unless it suddenly occurs to you that, wow she’s actually tired, or hungry, or something else, I would just stay sitting and hold her in your lap, having a little break together.

Now if you see something that obviously indicates to you that your child wants to sit up… Sometimes what happens if babies are pulled up to sit by holding their arms and pulling them up is that they actually will kind of start to look like they’re doing a little crunch. Now that is not the way that babies actually sit up independently. When they sit up on the floor on their own, they do from the side. So that’s not actually a way that your baby will probably ever sit up, or for a long time, definitely not in natural motor development. But if a baby does that and you feel very certain that they’re saying, Hey, I want to sit up. What’s going on with this? Usually I’m up. That’s when I would say, “Looks like you’re wanting to sit up. Yes, we had you in that position. We used to do that, and we’ve decided this way is better now but, yeah, you want to sit up. It looks like you really, really want to sit up right now.”

So, no need to shy away from that. This is how you’re going to connect with your child and let them know that I want to hear. I want to hear what you think about things. And this is a wonderful beginning for your relationship, because all the way through you’re going to hope that your child continues to tell you what they think about things, even if it’s what they know you don’t want to hear. This is when it starts. So embrace this, instead of being afraid of it. I know, most of us are get afraid of these things. Try to embrace it instead. As a wonderful moment, a wonderful time for you to give your child a message that I want to hear when you don’t like things. I want to hear when you’re mad at me. I want to hear everything that’s going on. I’m not afraid. I just want to know you. I want to hear it all, and I’m still gonna make these right decisions for you, ’cause that’s my job.

So, similarly if the baby is wanting to stand up. I would do the same thing. I would say a similar thing. “Wow, it looks, wow, you really want me to pull you up like we used to. Yeah, we always did that didn’t we? That’s really hard. You really want to do that and we’re saying that we’ve decided this isn’t the right thing and that’s really tough.”

If you have this kind of conviction, such conviction that you can be relaxed about it, that’s real conviction. Conviction isn’t this tense thing that we’re holding it all together and being all serious about it. Conviction is, “Yeah, it’s tough to make these changes. We’ve asked you to do a lot here.” You know, again, the words don’t matter. Let them be your own. Let them be you communicating with your child;. Having this wonderful person to person relationship.

So if you do this consistently and stop doing the propping or the pulling up, this will be a very short lived transition. It might take an hour. It might take one day. Again, children adapt readily, but not if we’re uncomfortable, then it’s impossible for them, because what they’re feeling is the gods are not certain about this. Wow, this is really uncomfortable. They’re not comfortable. I can’t be comfortable with this. There’s something wrong going on here. My parents are not sure of themselves. They’re looking worried.

So children are that aware, they really are. So we’ve got to be on our game in this, and I think it helps to ponder and visualize and sort of practice in our minds being in that situation before we engage in it, to kind of do a rehearsal or two in our minds. Maybe with each other if both parents are on board, and then you’ll see, you’ll get to enjoy the wonders of your child’s way of figuring out how to sit, your child’s unique process, all these wonderful, in between positions and postures that disappear. I always tell parents, “Take a picture! You’re probably not going to see this position,” especially the one that I call the male centerfold position where the baby’s lying on his or her side and in that in between before sitting, actually, it’s usually right before baby sit.

And then one day you’ll get to see that moment where she sits. And it’s not some huge surprise, but there is a little look of, well, here I am! These are moments to enjoy, and these are accomplishments that build confidence in your baby, both from your end and from their end. They build confidence when they are trusted to develop this way. So there are a lot of benefits, and, yeah, it’s just a little tricky in the transition, but certainly, certainly, certainly, certainty, doable.

If you’re not aware of my website, I have an article, Sitting Babies Up – The Downside, that explains more of this in detail. So I recommend that. I have a lot of other gross motor development articles on my website and again, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, will give you a sort of introduction to this whole approach, based on trusting our children. And trust is relief. Trust means we don’t have to worry about a lot of the things we thought we had to work about as parents. We can really, really, give those to our baby. Whew, takes a lot of pressure off.

So I hope this is encouraging. I hope this is helpful. Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

2 Comments

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

  1. great article! but what if the baby is 10 months old, and has no interest in sitting by herself?

    1. Thank you, Chris. What is your baby currently doing motor-skill-wise?

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