Let Babies Sit Themselves Up
Dear Infant Caregivers: parents, grandparents, planning or expectant parents, teachers or educators, and even those of you who haven’t had a baby yet but will one day,
Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine that your head is bigger than your chest. How did your neck, chest and pelvis adjust to hold up the weight of your head? Can you focus on what is going on around you while holding this posture?
At birth and for nearly the entire first year, an infant’s head is bigger than their chest. Given the size and weight of their head, a newborn must rest their head against a surface, preferably near their caregiver’s heart, while curled in “baby ball.” Baby ball begins while growing in the womb and folds their head, arms and knees toward their navel. Holding a newborn in “baby ball” will often calm them, make it easier to pick up or move them, and help integrate the numerous reflexes that will gradually orient their head and body in gravity and space.
Humans are born with a fear of falling and loud noises, which is registered in our inner ear. You may have noticed your infant (or yourself) startle in response to these. When startled, our limbs extend in response to the stimulation that is registering as threatening to our well-being. To avoid eliciting a fear of falling in newborns, hold and pass a them “elbow to elbow” while maintaining “baby ball” — a practice I teach caregivers in FUNdamentals and Infant Developmental Movement Educator courses. Note: A newborn will often startle when lifted up under their arms to be moved.
During the first six months, an infant will gradually open like a flower from baby ball to lift their head and extend their limbs. They will also begin opening and closing all of their limbs toward and away from their navel with coordination. However, this blossoming requires strength and coordination, which is gained by pushing into a stable surface (the ground or a caregiver) with first, their arms to raise their head up and lower bottom down — preparing them for sitting!
Unlike other mammals (a puppy, kitten or horse) your newborn cannot walk independently within a few hours or days of their birth. The human brain and body (neural-motor) development requires that caregivers be patient because their infant will need at least twelve months to organize sitting, crawling, standing and walking, independently. During those 12 months:
- the curves of their spine (first cervical, then thoracic, lumbar and sacral) will also develop the strength and coordination to support the unfolding of their limbs. This “core” organization begins at their head with sucking and swallowing, then
- with their arms against a stable surface the infant will begin pushing their head up and bottom down, which serves to connect their arms to their head, neck and chest. This connection will gradually reach their hips and pelvis, to begin their first locomotion pattern, rolling front to back, before
- gyroscoping (moving on their belly and over both hips), to connect first their upper/lower body halves, then right/left body halves. Note: Babies gain strength and mobility by first, pushing with their arms (they will always move backwards!), then pushing with their legs (to move forward) and eventually, onto each side and rolling before
- reaching up onto all fours to push their hips backward into sitting, then crawling on hands and knees before climbing up to standing and walking.
In other words, their arms will gradually develop the strength and coordination to move them backward, several months before their feet and legs begin moving them forward. Not until all four limbs are integrated to move them forward and backward on their belly, will they possess the core strength and confidence to lift their belly up and off the floor and begin pushing their hips backward, with their arms, into sitting.
Do you recognize a pattern? Infant’s push their body backward with their arms while on the belly before their legs will push them forward on their belly. Their arms will push their hips backward into sitting before they attempt to reach and crawl forward or begin standing and walking. Note: When infant’s are sat and/or stood up before their arms have gained the strength to push and gyroscope on their belly, they will lack the upper body strength for further development. This weakness disrupts crawling on all fours because the infant will not be confident supporting their own body weight with their belly off of the ground. This weakness usually creates the likelihood that the infant will either scoot on their bottom, which is not a normal pattern, or go directly to walking, which further interrupts their neural-motor sequencing and their foundation for academic and athletic skills.
Do you recall “gyroscoping”, which I mentioned earlier when an infant is pushing forward or backward on their belly and rolling across their hips onto each side? Gyroscoping and weight-shifting are actions that need to be organized with their belly on the ground before they can confidently move with their belly off the ground, which is necessary to accomplish sitting, crawling, standing and walking.
When an infant is propped or placed in sitting and standing before they have developed adequate upper body strength to move their own body into sitting and standing, their spinal curves will be develop out of sequence. In my work with infants, children, athletes and adults that spans three decades, I have noted that this handling practice can lead to sensory, organ, glandular and/or spinal challenges such as scoliosis or lordosis because it requires that the cervical and lumbar curves become dominant.
When a newborn or an infant is “propped up” in a sitting position or placed into equipment, they will either stiffen or flop over. When a young infant is consistently sat and stood up, they will habitually extend their limbs and stiffen throughout their entire body, which is a fear response. This stiffening is easily felt when holding them and will not only disrupt the integration of their arms and legs with the rest of their body but also delay their ability to roll over and rotate into sitting.
For an infant to coordinate rolling over, their torso can not be stiff because rolling requires twisting their upper and/or lower body. Rolling front to back is led by the head, neck and chest while rolling across their hips. When rolling from back to front, the legs often lead their rolling across their mid-upper back and chest. Rolling in both directions are stepping stones toward sitting, independently, as well as crawling, walking and turning to scan a situation or gain perspective.
When an infant is propped and placed in sitting, standing, or a piece of equipment, caregivers don’t realize that the infant is learning to be dependent on the caregiver and no learning is taking place. They are not learning to move their own body in or out of the position they are being placed in. It can also be confusing to be on the ground, then suddenly picked up and moved through space to a new level. Some babies will enjoy this but for some it will create a sensory or physical disconnect. Have you ever compared walking to taking an elevator to the top of a building? In some individuals, vertigo will occur when stepping off the elevator after being moved quickly to a higher level. Have you ever felt like you were put in a situation (as a child or adult) for which you were unprepared? This can elicit a startle or (flight/fright/freeze) fear response and the neuroendocrine or glandular system will release adrenalin to create a hyper alert state in the individual — ideal for reacting but not for learning. Over time, this may become a pattern or an addiction to excitement and this hyper-alert feeling. Also, knowing the time it takes for an adult to return to a resting state after a startling experience, imagine the challenge for an infant to self-regulate and calm down. Note: The practice of propping and placing infants in equipment for most of the day may also make nap or bed time challenging because of the adrenal excitement that verticality creates and the fact that they are not tired because they are not pushing and pulling their body’s weight to explore their environment.
A final and vitally important point regarding propping babies in sitting is that when an infant is sat upright before their protective reflexes have been established, they lack the response to catch their self when they begin to fall. (I have seen children and adults without protective responses.) Every healthy infant is wiggly and can fall out of a chair like the ‘Bumbo.” This fall can result in a skull fracture or head and neck trauma. The manufacturer’s solution concerns me because they are considering a helmet to accompany these chairs, which is not only absurd but will increase the weight of the infant’s head in sitting. Note: Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the Bumbo manufacturer because unknowingly, caregivers place their newborn or infant in this “chair” (without a helmet) before they have gained their protective reflexes. Protective reflexes do not begin to appear until an infant is nearly 6 months old — the time when an uninterrupted normally developing infant will be transitioning to belly off the ground and into sitting.
To further illustrate, I want to share my experience with two infants, one a month older, who both began attending classes with me shortly after their birth. The caregivers of the younger baby allowed their infant to develop independently, at their own pace and began walking at one year. The caregivers of the older child started sitting their baby up before they were sitting, independently, at about 4 months. During the first class, after propping in sitting began at home, I noticed a shift in the older infant’s self-regulation and perception. This infant was being sat up before they had found their own pathway up and down, and was therefore being placed at a higher level than their sensory processing was prepared for. Before being sat at home, this infant was consistently calm, focused and interactive throughout class but that day appeared to be uncomfortable and disorganized. The second week, the baby appeared even more agitated and their caregiver noticed the younger child was now more mobile and progressing toward sitting. That was reason enough for the caregiver to stop sitting their baby up and allow the baby to lead their own development.
Gradually, with support throughout class, the baby’s disposition improved and I noticed they were tracking what was going on in the room instead of fussing because they were uncomfortable.
It is difficult to pay attention and learn when uncomfortable. This is the reason for caregivers to create comfort for their newborn in baby ball during the first 3 months of life, which will help them with self-regulation and establish a calm-alert state — ideal for learning throughout life. During the next 3 months the infant needs to be on each side and in Tummy Time, for them to build their upper body strength and eventually push their belly off of the floor to begin sitting, crawling, standing and walking. Note: Not all babies fuss when their caregivers place them in sitting or ahead of their developmental level. The various reasons I am familiar with are: the infant is spending most of their time on their back; they have been sat up since birth and interacting socially with caregivers; or they simply succumb — all of which can lead to various challenges from mild to severe.
It was easy for me to notice the change in the older infant described above because this was one of two infants who were consistently brought to my classes, and previous to being sat up, both were steadily progressing with the younger appropriately behind the older baby. During the two classes after being sat up, I noticed the older baby wouldn’t settle unless on their back or being held—unfortunate choices caregivers consistently make that do not contribute to mobility or brain and body organization. For me, what was most informative was the fact that this baby was interrupted in its development, then returned to leading their own progression and I was able to witness this process. The older baby walked two months later than the younger baby who started walking at one year old.
In the first six months of your infant’s life, I know it is challenging to be patient and accept your infant, right where they are. However, it is supportive and respectful of their process, which begins with establishing internal comfort to self-regulate and will gradually open to explore self, others and the environment. Respect each phase and drop down to your infant’s level to notice what they are engaged in, and let them lead the way! Lifting them into your adult (vertical) level is often an interruption that also nudges them into hyper-alert and is a practice I consider a root cause of attention deficits. By dropping down to the infant’s level and being present but not interrupting, caregivers are affirming their child and what the are doing while also supporting them in maintaining calm-alert and developing a long attention span. From birth onward, we are learning to self-regulate, break down a task, problem-solve, reach for and get, what we want in life. Being a witness to the daily struggle and success of your infant makes them feel important! Your presence will not only strengthen their sense of self but place you in the center of their internal village.
Since 1979 I have witnessed infants in my private practice, my own and those of other IDME educators, who were allowed to develop to sitting, standing and walking, independently. As adults these individuals stand out as creative individuals who are grounded, organized and capable of problem-solving. While in school they excel academically, athletically, and socially.
I understand that you want to help your baby and hope this article illustrates that rather than expediting their progress, you may be slowing them down when choosing to prop them into sitting or standing.
I am dedicated in this last third of my life to sharing Newborn & Infant FUNdamentals and IDME because in my private practice I have witnessed the numerous challenges “neural-motor gaps” of toddlers to elders and skilled athletes that were created during their first year. As a new parent, surround yourself with others who trust the intelligence of their baby to complete their own developmental process, which evolved over millions of years — without propping or equipment.
My hope is that you will become fascinated with and witness this process throughout your infant’s first year. Accept and allow the unknown to unfold before you! It is important to intervene if your infant is born premature, having trouble feeding, sleeping, rolling, using only one arm or leg, or stuck in a pattern or trauma that occurred before or at birth. This is when a Body-Mind Centering(R) trained Infant Developmental Movement Educator can support them in their developmental challenge or I can refer you to a practitioner in my network. Otherwise, let babies sit themselves up.
Copyright (c) 2016 Maryska Bigos
Be assured that I am honored to be a part of your journey as a caregiver and throughout your infant’s first-year to support the discoveries you will make, together.
My best always to you and yours,
For information about FUNdamentals: idmeFUN.com
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For information about Infant Developmental Movement Education (IDME) visit: bodymindcentering.com