baby

Expert advice: 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 do your neck, chest and torso adjust to hold up the weight of your head? Maintain this posture and open your eyes. How easy is it to stay connected or attend to 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. Mother Nature places their head down and bottom up in the birth canal with their arms folded near their chest. This is the best position for their birth and after birth, to integrate the numerous reflexes that will gradually orient their head in gravity and space. Given the weight of their head, a newborn must rest their head against a surface or caregiver while curled in a “baby ball” around their navel.

"At birth and for nearly the entire first year, an infant’s head is bigger than their chest." Via iStock

Humans are born with a fear of falling and loud noises. You may have noticed your infant (or yourself) startle in response to these. When startled our limbs extend in response to stimulation registering in our inner ear as threatening to our well-being. To avoid eliciting a fear of falling in babies, I teach caregivers to hold and pass a baby “elbow to elbow” while maintaining “baby ball” — a practice I teach in FUNdamentals and Infant Developmental Movement Educator (IDME) courses. Note: Newborns will often startle when being moved while supported under their arms.

Over the first six months, an infant will open slowly like a flower from baby ball to lift their head. They will coordinate opening and closing their entire body toward and away from their navel as they gain strength and coordination. However, this blossoming requires strength gained by pushing into a stable surface (the ground or caregiver) with their arms to raise their head up and lower bottom down — which prepares 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, standing and walking, independently. During those 12 months:

  • the curves of their spine (first cervical, then thoracic, lumbar and sacral) will develop as the infant gains the strength and coordinations to unfold their limbs. The sequence begins at their head with sucking and swallowing, then
  • with their arms against a surface they will begin pushing their head up and bottom down, which serves also to connect their upper limbs to their head, neck and chest, then gradually pushing into to their hips and pelvis, at about 5 months old, to begin 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 pushing first with their arms (they always move backwards), then with their legs (to move forward) and eventually, onto each side before rolling and
  • 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 develop the strength and connection to move their hips, several months before their legs and feet organize to move their hips. Not until all four limbs are integrated into their trunk, will an infant possess the strength and confidence to lift their belly up off the floor and begin to push their hips backward, with their arms, into sitting.

"Unlike other mammals (a puppy, kitten or horse) your newborn cannot walk independently within a few hours or days of their birth." Via iStock

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 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 gyroscope on their belly, they will lack upper body strength. This weakness will disrupt crawling on all fours because they will not be confident supporting their own body weight with their belly off the ground. This weakness usually creates the likelihood that the infant will either scoot around on their bottom, which is not a normal pattern, or go directly to walking, further interrupting nature’s neural-motor sequence and their foundation for academic and athletic skills.

Do you recall “gyroscoping”, which I mentioned earlier and when the infant is pushing forward/backward on their belly and rolling across their hips onto each side? These actions of weight-shifting need to become organized with their belly on the ground before they can maneuver weight-shifts through space with their belly off the ground to accomplish sitting, standing and walking, independently.

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.

Via iStock

When a newborn or an infant is “propped” in a sitting position or placed into equipment by a caregiver, they either stiffen or flop over. When a young infant is consistently sat and stood up, they will usually extend their limbs and stiffen throughout their entire body (a fear response) in an effort to support the weight of their head. This stiffening is easily felt when holding them and will not only disrupt the integration of their arms and legs with their torso 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 turning to scan or perceive and later gain perspective on a situation.

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 neural-motor 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 go 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 perceptual 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 (flight/fright/freeze) 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.

How about when it comes to holding babies in a soothing manner? Watch the Mamamia team try to master 'The Hold.' Post continues after video. 

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 illustrate, I want to share my experience with two infants, one a month older, who both began attending FUNdamentals 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 the hour of class but that day appeared to be uncomfortable and disorganized. The second week, the baby appeared even more agitated and the caregiver quickly 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 that they were following 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 during the first 3 months of life and help them establish a calm-alert state, which is ideal for learning. During the next 3 months the infant needs to be laid down on each side and in Tummy Time, for them to build their upper body strength and eventually push their belly off of the floor and gain the mobility to begin exploring and the problem-solving that comes with crawling, sitting, standing and walking.

"It is difficult to pay attention and learn when uncomfortable." Via iStock

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 FUNdamentals 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 support 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. 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 deficit disorders (ADD).

By dropping down to the infant’s level and being present but not interrupting, caregivers are affirming the 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 struggle and success of an infant makes them important! Your presence will not only strengthen their sense of self but place you in the center of their internal village.

"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." Via iStock

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, but hope this 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 babies to complete this process that 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.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.

Maryska Bigos is the Founder of Newborn & Infant FUNdamentals. For information about FUNdamentals visit idmeFUN.com and mybabyfundamentals

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