The other day one of my colleagues was telling me about parents who were concerned their child wasn’t developing properly. The couple knew from their friends that their daughter should be sitting around age 6 months, but she was 7 months and still wasn’t sitting. They went to their pediatrician and requested an evaluation by a physical therapist.
The therapist spent a little time observing the child and chatting with the parents about her daily activities. Two things quickly became clear: first that the baby was normal and didn’t need physical therapy and second that the parents were the problem.
They weren’t bad parents. Far from it. In fact, they were too good at being parents, if that’s possible. They wanted to shelter their baby from any discomfort or struggle and in doing so they were standing squarely between her and her ability to sit up.
Turns out every day she was moved and shifted from parent to high chair, to bouncy seat to parent, to nap to parent. You get the idea. Unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong way to help a baby develop. Babies are built to move, and as they move they develop strength, balance and coordination.
This got me thinking, so I checked out a well-known parenting Web site. Sure enough, there were parents on the site concerned about their child’s development. They realized their baby was a little bit late on the "normal" milestones. Other moms on the site were ready to give advice. To my surprise, much of it involved the use of some sort of equipment like a Bumbo Seat, which is basically a plastic chair that gives enough support to allow a very young baby to sit. Several parents swore that the Bumbo Seat was the reason their baby learned to sit.
C’mon parents, babies have been learning to sit, roll, walk and run for millennia without the assistance of positioning equipment or parents’ intensive involvement. Babies are hard-wired to acquire these skills. Walking is in our brains from the moment we are born.
If you don’t believe me, go to the YouTube search box and put in "stepping reflex" (use the quotes) and you’ll see lots of newborns "walking" across a table with a little help from mommy or daddy. Babies are born with this reflex that quickly disappears in the first few months of life and then is replaced by controlled walking around age 1. You don’t have to do a thing except maybe back off. Same for rolling, sitting and crawling.
If you were born before 1980 I’ll bet you didn’t have any of the fancy bouncy seats or Bumbos. Guess what? You met all of your expected physical milestones. I promise that babies will learn to roll over, sit up, crawl, pull to stand, walk and run at some point during their first 12-18 months of life unless they have a developmental problem, which is rare.
But in order to develop, babies need to build strength and coordination and that takes personal effort; parents can’t do it for them.
When babies are born, they can’t even hold up their heads, and a short 12 months or so later they are walking. It’s an incredibly fast transition from being stuck on their backs to getting around on their own. To do it, babies have to develop a strong core (abs and back), strong arms to push into sitting, strong shoulder muscles to crawl, and strong buns and legs to stand. At the same time they must figure out how to balance everything over their feet. It’s really amazing and it all happens naturally, but they need time on the floor working their muscles.
On the parenting Web site I read several snippets of faulty advice until I finally came across a wise parent who wrote: "I actually learned that part of the reason my son was holding back originally on learning how to sit was because I was freaking out every time he would tip over, and with learning the things he needs to know to crawl I was always picking him up when he’d get upset on his tummy. ... But once I began to let him have his space and let him learn things the way he wanted to learn them, he started doing things really fast. I just made a very cushioned floor for him with blankets and mats so if he did fall it was a soft landing."
Wrote another: "Once I stopped bothering him, he started learning really fast. Just make sure you let him pout a little on the floor when he’s trying to do something so he knows you aren’t going to ‘rush in’ but that he has to figure it out for himself. He’s going to do things at his own pace, but he needs space to do it."
We all love our children and want to do what’s best for them. Parents of new babies are bombarded with all sorts of information and gadgets that are supposed to be helpful, but the best thing you can do for your baby’s development is to get out of the way. The first year of life is filled with amazing triumphs so keep your cameras charged because your baby came here ready to get up and go.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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