Many parents whose baby hasn’t yet sat up independently wonder if they should prop the baby up. The question of whether or not to prop a baby who isn’t yet sitting alone is frequently asked and there are opinions for and against. First of all, before we explain our position on this question, it’s important to point out the best way to achieve the sitting position is when the baby finds their own way to sitting unaided.
A baby who can sit independently, and stay seated without being propped up by pillows or other support for about ten seconds, is telling us that their systems are maturing – and they’re ready for a new and intriguing stage in their development. That transition means that all their systems are now ready for sitting up. From there, the baby will be able to move from sitting to other positions, for example belly-crawling or six-point crawling, in a well-regulated way, without falling.
The transition to sitting unaided is a huge leap forward in developmental terms and especially in terms of the balance system. When babies transition to sitting independently, their skeleton supports itself in the vertical position. This is the place to emphasize – babies who use their palms for stability still aren’t ready for long-term independent sitting.
Babies who are sitting independently have developed their orientation in space, motor skills, and coping with ground forces. They’ve experienced an initial process of separation from the parents, and this leads on to a more complex exploration of their environment and enhanced awareness to their body.
The sitting position brings babies closer to the social group, their family, and peers. Sitting makes them more available for interacting with other people, and simultaneously develops their ability to imitate their facial expressions and gestures. It supports interpersonal contact and mutual communication, builds trust and prosocial behavior. Moreover, the transition to independent sitting means that – for the first time – both the baby’s hands are completely free to play.
In the following review, we explain what motivates parents who want to help their baby sit, why it’s not generally recommended to help a baby sit if they’re not yet sitting alone, what the consequences can be, and when (even so) it can be worthwhile to help them sit up.
Why do parents want to seat their baby upright?
We all have some kind of innate developmental plan, even infants who can’t fulfill it because of some disability, and that plan includes raising the head, rolling over, crawling, sitting, standing, and walking. It dictates to the baby how they’ll develop, in accordance with their genetic inheritance and the environment where they grow up.
When there’s a delay in development, particularly in the transition to independent sitting, the problem is not only in the motor delay, which can be overcome or completed at a later stage, but in the emotional feelings that build up in the baby during the delay. A baby who doesn’t develop at the pace dictated by that developmental plan may not be able to verbally express their feelings. And many parents report that they sense that the developmental delay is creating frustration in the baby.
We frequently hear comments like ‘he really wants to sit,’ ‘when he’s seated, he’s happy,’ ‘the fact that she’s not sitting on her own, affects her playing with other kids in the nursery.’ Feelings of success, or frustration, form the basis for constructing the baby’s future self-image. So, if the baby was already supposed to have gone through a certain stage, but hasn’t done that, they may develop a sense of failure and avoidance.
At this point, as parents we want to help the baby cope with the delay and fulfill their motoric and emotional potential … so sometimes we push them toward performing a certain action, even though it’s unwise.
Why is it unwise to “help” a baby who isn’t sitting unaided?
Clearly, it’s a natural and understandable desire to prop a baby who isn’t sitting independently. It’s particularly true when, in terms of the baby’s age and expected development rate, they were already “supposed” to sit unaided. Usually the baby’s reaction to being helped is positive, and most parents say that the baby wants to sit up and is happy when sitting.
A positive response to propping is very common among infants who are not yet sitting independently, and whose parents prop them. It happens because suddenly the baby sees the world from a new angle, at eye level, and it’s fun. But – and there’s a big but here – it also has consequences, not necessarily positive ones.
When we think about sitting, or imagine the sitting position, most people think about a static state. In fact, though, sitting is far from static. When we sit in any position, there is constant movement, even if it’s minimal, and that movement keeps us stable while sitting.
The importance of this developmental stage is not just the sitting itself. It’s also the freedom to move from situation to situation, from starting and stopping to sit. A baby who has been seated upright by an adult, but hasn’t yet learned how to sit alone, doesn’t know how to get out of the sitting position. Then they are “stuck,” which causes dependence and actually impairs their development.
And if you still want to prop the baby, when should you do it (if at all)?
We need to be aware that each baby has their own personal rhythm and unique ways of learning. Therefore, we should think sensitively about when it’s best to wait for the baby to sit independently, and when it’s worth placing them in a seated position, to get to know the sitting position proactively. In any case, the aim is not to urge the baby to sit before his systems are mature.
If you still want to seat a baby who is not yet sitting alone, it’s important that you supervise the process. This means making sure that the propping is done only for set periods of time and for clear purposes, that the baby’s back is properly supported – and of course, that the baby is never left unattended. Good times for this are while playing, when the baby supported and hugged between the parent’s legs on the floor, or perhaps at mealtime in a suitable feeding chair.
As we noted previously, this is only on condition that you see that the baby is already showing stability in the propped upright position, and doesn’t have to use their own hands on the floor for support.
A developmental counselor using the Shelhav Method can help your baby become familiar with their physical abilities that allow them to reach independent sitting, and to proceed from it to crawling or lying down. She will also teach you how to support the baby during the learning process – both motorically and emotionally.
The bottom line, if you’re still debating whether it’s time to place your baby in the upright position, and help them transition to independent sitting, or whether to wait for them to sit unaided, it is wise not to make decisions alone, and to consult with experienced infant development professionals.
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