Babies are fascinating! They develop so many cognitive, social, and motor skills in such a short period of time after birth. Everything from eye contact and sounds to postural control and object manipulation takes root in those first 18 months. But what is normal for baby’s development? And what can parents do to nurture that development?
Baby will meet a number of milestones in the cognitive, social, and motor aspects, and for the sake of this article, we will focus primarily on the motor component: When and how does baby sit up? There are a number of milestones that lead up to sitting and sitting is a precursor to future milestones. This article will discuss those milestones, what parents can do to foster baby’s natural development, and provide information about when to be concerned about baby’s development along with resources that may be helpful.
What Parents Can Do
Early motor skills cannot be taught to a baby in the same way that we learn motor skills (sport movements, dance moves, etc.) as adults. For one thing, communication is limited. Baby cannot follow instructions or provide feedback regarding their own movement. The good thing, however, is that baby does not need convincing to get moving. Babies are intrinsically motivated by instinctive needs and curiosity to explore their environment through movement. Your role as the parent is simple: keep baby safe, give baby opportunities to move and explore, and engage with baby. Keeping baby safe is an obvious one; if baby is in an unsafe situation, injury may occur, which could affect more than just motor development. Babies’ heads are very fragile until brain growth and skull closure is complete. A fall that causes a head injury could also lead to cognitive impairments or other developmental delays. Some ways to keep baby safe are to child-proof potential environmental dangers and to maintain a safe radius around baby, especially during free play.
Your next job as a parent or caregiver is to provide opportunities for movement and exploration. The renown “tummy time” is one way to encourage head movements in early stages, as well as set baby up to roll. Another idea is to place toys slightly out of baby’s reach and allow them to problem-solve retrieval. Holding baby in standing or supporting in sitting are also hands-on ways to familiarize baby with new positions and postural demands. These are just a few suggestions, and there are many other possibilities out there. The main point of this one is: do not leave baby wrapped up and 100% supported all the time. Baby needs to use the muscles to develop the appropriate strength and coordination.
Actively providing opportunities for baby’s movement is one way to engage with baby, however, engagement also takes into consideration all of the other aspects of baby’s development: sensory, social/communication, cognition, feeding, etc. Baby learns through imitation and practice, which means that your interaction with them is crucial for how they interpret and interact with the environment and themselves. Mimicking their sounds, facial expressions, and movements provides a mirror for what they are doing and stimulates the brain in patterning motor behaviors that work and altering the ones that do not. Baby’s brain is so malleable and receptive to learning; take advantage of it!
If You Have Concerns
Another huge part of your engagement with baby is to be able to check for any signs of abnormal development. This part gets a little scary for parents, but knowing what to look for and getting help early on can make a huge difference if there is anything amiss. I love this chart from Pathways.org about warning signs throughout development:
If you notice any of these signs in your child, consult their pediatrician and request an evaluation. You might also consider asking for a referral to a specialist, such as a developmental pediatrician, child neurologist, or child psychologist.5 They may determine that “early intervention” is appropriate for your child. Early intervention is specialized care given to children for 0-3 years old with developmental delays or disabilities and their families, and may include physical therapy, speech therapy, and other required services.5 The sooner intervention begins, the higher likelihood of its effectiveness. Find out more about the importance of early intervention here. Other great resources are included in the references (specifically the first two).
Babies do a lot of work in their first 18 months with us: they go from squishy peanuts to walking, talking tyrants (hello, terrible twos!). A number of systems are growing and developing during this time, and motor skill development in particular utilizes the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system to allow baby to explore the environment. We talked about some key motor milestones for baby, and how those contribute to the essential trunk control, muscular strength, and bony adaptations that contribute to efficient functional movement. As parents and caregivers, it is our role to foster that development by keeping baby safe, providing opportunities for movement and exploration, and engaging with baby throughout development. Above all, it is our role to love our babies, and allow ourselves to be amazed by the little miracles they are. Now, go play (on your tummies)!