26 may, 2013 by adminI never liked the idea of sitting up babies early in life. In the beginning my reasons were more related with musculoskeletal issues, specifically to avoid stress in bones and joints that are still developing and consequently not prepared to support weight. Today I still advocate against sitting up babies but my reasons have changed, and now I think more about emotional and cognitive development, sensory nutrition, and growing up as active human beings. Let me explain further.
Sitting up our babies early in life is not a new practice in our society. Back in the 1950s the paediatrician Emmi Pikler already described how unnatural this common practice was and how those babies who were exposed to that posture early in their life showed a completely different posture in comparison to those babies who were raised up following the freedom of movement concept. She found that those babies were more likely to be tense and look as they had “swallowed a broomstick”. This kind of muscle tension is an understandable reaction to an unbalanced situation where the trunk is expected to keep a vertical position even though it has not had much time exercising antigravity muscles in previous postures such as tummy time (when the baby is rolling by himself). Thus, adults impose a posture that the baby is not able to achieve on his own and, in consequence, interfere with the normal developmental sequence of that child.
A couple of years ago, I did a lecture in Chile about the “Freedom of movement and Emmi Pikler’s approach” to physiotherapists, early childhood teachers, and students. I asked: When do children sit up by themselves? There was a range of answers: some of them said between 4 and 5 months, others said 6 months and some said 8 months. The only clear thing about the answers was that it was not clear at all. To answer this question, we need to start by asking if we all have the same understanding of what it means to “sit up”.
We need to analyse what we mean by “sitting up”, because there are significant differences between keeping that posture and reaching that posture. Let’s examine this further. When a baby manages to keep sitting up when an adult puts him in that position, it is because he has experienced this posture several times and is able to sort out the imbalance and keep the position. Nevertheless, if that baby falls over, he is not able to regain the position on his own. On the other hand, when sitting up is a posture that babies build from their own motivation and sensorimotor resources derived from exploring with their bodies, it does not require practice or teaching and is part of a chain of milestones that are inherent in our genes as a species. In general, a baby sits up by his own after rolling, twisting, and crawling, and this usually happens around nine months.
Therefore, respecting the developmental process of our babies means that we support and encourage their self-motivated exploration and avoid listening to the comments of other adults who will not hesitate to judge this practice as delaying our child’s development. From my professional and personal experience, I truly believe that a child who is not made to sit up by an adult in his early days and is, to the contrary, able to explore the world at his own pace, is a baby who will develop active movement earlier. He will be able to roll and become aware that if he rolls two times he can get something he likes, so he will be ready to move around a long time earlier than starting to crawl or walk. At the same time, and as a direct consequence of not being put in a position he is not able to keep, we have a child who feels secure and content in his own body and builds the awareness of active embodiment in space. As a result he develops more and more complex relationships with his environment and becomes an active explorer of the world.
When a child is made to sit up by an adult early in life, his exploration abilities are restricted by the imbalance and he will probably need constant assistance during his play; someone who will give him the toys and also give them back when they fall from his hands. Moreover, he will probably complain more often, reacting to what happened in his environment. A baby who explores from his own motor abilities will not need this constant assistance as he is able to do things by his own or is flexible enough to change his mind if he is not able to reach something he wants. That is probably why Emmi Pikler called one of her books “Peaceful babies, contented mothers”.
In addition, if a baby is made to sit up early, his legs become a static part of the posture rather than being active as in rolling or crawling, skipping some very important milestones in his life. This lack of activation contrasts with the active and flexible legs of a baby who moves around, and a brain which is receiving constant sensory information from muscles, joints, touch and vestibular system. As a result, the baby who is in movement will have a more complex map of his body in his brain.
We could go on with many more reasons about why we should avoid sitting up our babies early in life, but perhaps another important thing we should keep in mind is… What is the rush? If we think about how much time this baby will spend sitting in his life, it will probably, similar to our own experience – i.e., too much time. So again, what is the rush?…better to give them the opportunity to actively discover the environment that surrounds them. As adults, we do not need to teach them how to move, we just need to trust in their own abilities and observe them unfold their full potential.