Here's a little parenting truth - having a baby who can sit up independently is wonderfully life changing for both you and your little one.
Need to set your baby down to put your shoes on before heading out the door? You'll be able to plop your little guy right down on the floor next to you. Need a hands-free moment to tidy up the living room? Your little one can sit on the rug and watch you. Need to prep a snack in the kitchen? A sitting baby can play happily nearby in a high chair (play which most often consistent of banging toys LOUDLY on the tray and tossing them to the floor).
And then there are the huge (huge) developmental leaps that happen when your baby "goes upright." With his newfound sitting skills, your baby will be orienting to his surroundings and accessing the objects in it in the ways he will for the rest of his life. That's major!
So let's look at 3 things your baby needs in order to learn to sit up and some key takeaways for promoting them.
(which starts earlier than you think)
You might be able to guess that developing head control is important for learning to sit up, but what you probably don't realize is how early that skill development starts. We usually think of head control as being able to hold the head up and steady when baby is held upright, but it actually begins with the "mini-milestone" of holding the head centered (nerdy child development term: head in midline) when laying on the back.
Look back at photos of your little one in the first 8 weeks (or glance over at your kiddo if you have a newborn) laying fully supported flat on the floor or on a crib mattress and check his head position. I'd be willing to bet a month's worth of diapers that your little one's head is turned to one side or the other. On average, midline head control when laying on the back develops around 2.5 months of age (be sure to adjust your baby's age if he/she was born early).
This sitting mini-milestone of developing early head control is just ANOTHER reason why it's important to make sure your baby is getting plenty of daily playtime outside of baby gear (which I like to call "floortime play"). A baby swing or bouncy seat might seem like the perfect place for your squishy newborn to lounge until you realize that your baby has really important developmental work to do when awake. The gravity of the semi-reclined position of most infant baby gear makes the work of holding the head steady and centered even harder. Too much time in gear can inhibit your little one's ability to work toward developing early head control, upright head control and - eventually - sitting skills.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Give your baby daily playtime on a blanket on the floor or other flat surface to practice head control. Wear and hold your baby upright as much as is practical. Be aware of how much time your baby spends daily in baby gear and strive to use gear for awake time only when it feels necessary and for an average of 2 hours or less per day.
When it comes to babies, even the steadiest sitter could never sit on a stool or bench. Why? Because babies use more than just their bottoms for sitting. Through exploration and trial and error, your little one will discover that she can use her hands, feet, legs and bottom as weight-bearing surfaces for sitting.
That body awareness starts developing very early on and Tummy Time can play a key role. Through early Tummy Time, your little one learns to use his hands as a weight-bearing surface. It's the first big experience your baby has staying upright on his own against gravity (accidental rolling from belly to back is evidence that it's trickier than we grown-ups might think). Learning to use his feet and legs as support comes as your little one begins to sit upright with help.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Offer your baby daily Tummy Time, beginning as early as you can. Short periods of belly-down play frequently throughout the day are best. Wear and hold your baby upright (but not in baby seats like Bumbos or floor sitters) to allow him ample practice to gain head control.
Babies do a really smart, really strategic and really effective thing to help them learn to sit - they WOBBLE! It's easy to see wobbling as a sign that your baby is unsteady, but it's really exciting when you learn to see it as a sign that your baby is learning and developing important skills for sitting...and beyond.
Every movement - every wobble - sends new sensory information to your child's brain from her visual sense, her movement (vestibular), her pressure & stretch (proprioceptive) sense and her touch (tactile) sense. This wobbling info elicits actions from your baby - tiny adjustments of her head position or body position to slightly shift her weight and try to bring her back to center. If a wobble is too big, it might elicit a reflexive action like a sudden reach of the arms to stop a fall or an ab crunch to slow a backwards tumble (and, quite often, it will result in a tumble so make sure your little one is sitting on a soft surface).
What most parents hope for when their baby begins to work on sitting is a steady sitter, but as a pediatric Occupational Therapist what I hope to see is a baby who spends some time wobbling, wobbling, wobbling! The constant loop of sensory information coming in and postural adjustments going out of the brain is developmentally rich; it isn't a step in the progression toward sitting to be skipped over or rushed through.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Once your baby shows signs of readiness for sitting - often around 4.5 - 6 months - allow baby daily practice wobbling (and falling) on a firm but padded surface (NOT in a baby seat or other gear marketed for sitting). You can use pillows or blankets to create a safe "fall zone" for your little one or sign up to receive my Happy Healthy Baby Gear Guide to learn more about one of my favorite sitting mats!
WHEN IS BABY READY FOR A BABY SEAT?
Baby seats like Bumbos and floor sitters aren't necessary pieces of equipment. But many parents have them or want to use them. One of the biggest developmental concerns of baby seats is that people tend to use them when baby is too young and developmentally not ready to be supported upright by anything other than a caregiver's hands or body.
Here's a video that explains how to know your baby is ready for a seat and why time spent in baby seats shouldn't be considered sitting practice (and what developmentally helpful sitting practice looks like) .
Want to know which baby seats are best for baby? Read on!