When should a baby be sitting? ‘Please do not sit me until I do it by myself.’

When should a baby be sitting? ‘Please do not sit me until I do it by myself.’

Dr Jane Williams 

Babies just love to move. We know this by watching babies who are frustrated by their immobility! Thinking they can assist children to be more mobile, many parents prop their babies up into a sitting position at a very early age. Yet, despite the best of intentions, this position can actually slow a baby’s pathway to mobility. Instead of making their muscles stronger and therefore able to propel them along, sitting actually has the opposite effect – it prevents the muscles needed for movement to be strengthened.  So when should we allow our babies to sit and how do we encourage them to move without placing them into this more upright position? 

Alice, five months old, is laying on her tummy closely watching her older  three year old sister play with some brightly coloured toys that look and sound just great! “If only I could get my hands on those!” she thinks. But Alice is not yet moving and so she starts to whinge. Mum comes running in, props her upright using pillows and towels, places a toy in her hands and sees that she is happy. But is mum really doing Alice a favour by sitting her up? 

In actual fact, Alice’s body is not yet developmentally ready to be sat upright. Alice will sit herself up when her brain and body are ready. Once she has developed adequate muscle and balance control – usually around six to eight months of age (of course some babies are earlier and others later) – she will sit herself upright without help. 

Being able to sit upright usually occurs after muscle strength in a baby’s legs, arms, shoulders and back through tummy crawling is well developed and her brain has matured to a point where important reflexes that aid in the healthy development of balance, posture, movement and stability are present. The normal sequence of baby development follows this order: rolling, pivoting, pushing backwards and lurching forward, moving forward on tummies, leading to tummy crawling and then creeping. It is at approximately the same time that a baby gets themselves into the creeping position on their hands and knees that they will push themselves back to sit. So, developmentally, babies don’t need to sit until they are just about to creep/crawl.Sitting early may interfere with this natural progression of skills, each of which plays an important role in later learning and development. For example, sitting early generally results in less tummy time for a baby. This means less movement and strengthening experiences and less opportunity to develop important reflexes that allow Alice to crawl, creep and to sit safely and maintain a strong upright posture, without falling and banging her head. Before Alice can sit up, she must accomplish mastery of head control and be able to automatically adjust the position in which her head is held in response to movement. This enables the healthy development of balance, the smooth control of the muscles of the eyes and the development of visual perception. Control of the head is gained in the tummy position much more quickly than in any other position.

So, there is no need to be in a hurry for your baby to sit. Nature will determine the timing. For now, simply help your little one to develop a brain and body ready for movement and sitting by providing the right environment: 

  • Lots of tummy time – helps develop head control, visual fixation and tracking skills. If your baby is sitting and not creeping/crawling, encourage more tummy time. This could be tricky if your baby can sit up without your help, as they will just keep doing this! Don’t stress, but when the opportunity arises, encourage tummy time by playing games. 
  • Vestibular stimulation – rocking, rolling, spinning, dancing, moving; aids in the maturation of the balance organs and help with the development of a good posture.
  • Massage – stimulates blood supply to the muscles of the body and helps development of muscle tone which is important for smooth and coordinated movement.
  • If feeding solids before your baby is able to sit themselves in an upright position, paediatricians advise you to have your baby in a position where there is good head support. “Baby should be in a slightly reclined position and should be able to keep their head up while leaning back. Good head control is essential to prevent choking.”1  When feeding solids, young babies who are artificially propped to sit when they do not yet have good head control can drop their heads forward as their spine curves. This is actually more dangerous than the semi-reclined position.  If your baby has severe colic or reflux and needs to be propped more upright while feeding, it is best done in the safety of a parents arms where instant response to potential choking can be taken.  The plastic moulded ‘baby seats’ do not support the upper body in young babies who do not have the strength to hold themselves up, so are not a suitable substitute. 
  • Avoid any ‘baby seats’ that are marketed to keep non-sitting babies in a sitting position. For more on these so called, ‘baby seats’ read here: ‘The Bumbo, ‘baby seat’ devices and propping your baby to sit. Please avoid. 
  • Give lots of love and hugs – the most nourishing environment for healthy brain development. 

Dr Jane Williams (PhD, BMgt, RN(Paeds)) is a Director of GymbaROO-KindyROO. She is one of Australia’s leading experts on baby and child development.