I sat watching my friend’s 16 month old zoom back and forth on two feet, transition seamlessly into belly crawling to retrieve a ball from under the sofa, and then glide upward via his hands and knees into running. His movement was exquisite—smooth, with every bit of himself moving toward his intention. At every twist and turn he knew his capabilities and his limitations, and he soared without fear. His radiant countenance and gleeful laughter told all!
Yep, I thought, this is the joy and confidence of a child who found his motor milestones all by himself without having been propped. This is baby-led development at its best!
In this post, I share my top 5 tips about what you can expect when you choose this lifestyle, so you feel supported in doing so, and you’ll hear from several parents who’ve taken the plunge!
What Does “Baby-led” or “Natural” Development Mean?
Raising an “unpropped” baby means allowing her to find milestones on her own, without propping her up in sitting, standing, and walking before she can get into and out of the positions on her own. (See links at end.)
This approach is radically different from typical practices! Propping, whether by habitually holding babies upright or putting them into a device (like a Bumbo seat, standing activity center, or jumper), is the cultural norm, at least here in the States. The occasional upright position to help a burp come out, a high chair when feeding solids, or a seat that inclines backward for a limited time are okay!
But truly optimal development happens when babies are allowed to discover positions and movements on their own. It’s unassisted, or “I can do it myself development,” as I like to call it!
“I have been limiting her time in those contraptions to an absolute minimum. Even when I’m in the other room, putting her older sister down for her nap, I leave my younger on the floor where there’s nothing harmful around her, instead of putting her in the jumper. I thought it eased my mind knowing she was “safe” in it, but she’s just as safe on the floor, I’m coming to realize. I love how fast she has figured out army crawling since then, how quickly she’s getting better at it. I find the idea of giving babies the opportunity to figure out all movements on their own fascinating. It makes sense!” – Mom E
5 Things to Expect
Thrills! Prepare to be wowed at your child’s un-taught abilities. Of course parents and babies everywhere are happy when Baby learns a new skill. But the joy, confidence, and satisfaction of babies who’ve found milestones completely on their own—and of their parents—is absolutely unmatched. Unfortunately, many parents miss this empowering feeling without realizing it!
So expect obvious massive pleasure—as well as nonchalant accomplishments.
But also, expect to have questions initially.
1. Expect your baby to look different from everyone else’s (likely propped) baby
At first (around 5 to 8 months), your baby may appear to be behind, typically because while other babies are being sat, yours will still be playing on his back, side, and belly. This comparison may be the case for two or three months in a row (or more!). Later, your baby may (or may not) zoom ahead. But most likely, your baby will show more confidence, coordination, balance, and ease than others his age. And, a healthy dose of gusto! Your baby will still fall sometimes—some small, safe falls are actually beneficial! But he’ll likely fall less and be more sturdy once he’s walking. He’ll have less fear too.
“At first, it seemed like she was behind her peers in “sitting” or moving. But I always noticed those children fell down and hurt themselves a lot, while she never startled herself in a new movement, never put herself in a position of harm or serious injury. She slowly but surely found her own way to sitting, crawling, standing, walking (and everything in between) with an amazing presence, surety and confidence in herself and her surroundings. I’ve never seen anything like it. From the start until now, at 15 months, she’s the most self-aware and self-trusting person I’ve met. We have not child proofed or locked much, and she enjoys discovery all over the house without even a crunch to her fingers. After all, why would a person who found her own way through everything put herself in harm’s way?” – Mom S
2. Independent sitting is the most different
True functional, independent sitting (Baby can get into and out of it by herself) happens much later than most people start sitting their babies: often around 8 months. It comes after Baby has been pushing herself on her belly for a while (often for 3 to 5 months!). All that pivoting, pushing backwards, and belly-crawling forward gets her inner “squisher” going! It’s like taking the slack out, building up ‘resonance’ through her middle so she’ll be able to sit. (Have you ever played with cornstarch mixed with water—run your finger through it, picked it up, played with it? It’s a lot like that!) It’s worth the wait—your baby will have the rest of her life to sit!
“Your blog helped shape the way we decided to never prop our baby. She crawled “early” and sat unassisted AFTER belly crawling a month or so…”backwards” to many but that was how her body developed! She also could climb things like slides and boxes before walking, “late” at 13 months. Our girl has always been on her own timetable for physical development and is so strong. No forcing along here! – Mom N
3. Expect comments from friends, family members, and maybe even your pediatrician
“She’s not SITTING yet?” “Aren’t you sitting her up?” Excellent, I say! Your baby is a teacher, and he will have an effect on everyone who crosses his path. Look, he’s already a world-changer, making all those people think! Remember that most people are not used to seeing babies progress on their own. Turn your answer into an empowering situation, rather than feel victimized. “No, he’s not sitting yet, isn’t it wonderful?! He’s so smart that he knew he wasn’t ready yet, so he’s doing all this amazing belly-pushing to build strength!” That said, it can be useful to check certain reflexes related to sitting and standing, as well as Baby’s ability to take weight in her legs. Your doctor may check these, but yet be unfamiliar with what unpropped development looks like.
“It makes so much sense to me about “respecting” the baby and not using all the baby traps. My baby just looked at me like, “what do you want from me!!” whenever I did strap her in to a contraption, which I realize I was doing because of my own mixed up emotions and not being able to deal with her being upset away from me or frustrated on her mat. She definitely slept better almost the first day that I started letting her move more independently and letting her work things out for herself on the mat. I realize now the reasons that made me think she “liked” being up in the highchair or swing are because they are wildly over stimulating to her and she forgets about her emotions or frustrations because she is taking in so much information, most of which is so over her head. It makes so much sense!” – Mom S
4. After learning to sit, your baby’s development will probably take off
Each baby is different. But getting into sitting is the first level change in space (from lying down to up higher). So it requires significant coordination, strength, self-awareness, depth perception, and sensory readiness in the brain. Once your baby has this, she’s ready to go! She may (or may not) sit in various ways, crawl on hands and knees, pull up to standing, crawl on hands and feet, and sidestep/cruise all at the same time!
“It’s amazing how quickly he’s learned to walk, run, & kick. I talk to friends with similar aged kids, and they all speak of a much longer learning process and many more problems with balance. I really think he’s as agile and balanced as he is because of your work with him. You’ve made a big difference in his life!” – Mom M
5. Other people will want to sit, stand, and walk your baby
It’s the only way some people know how to be with babies. Most do so with “good intentions,” like helping Baby learn the skill or allowing her to see what’s going on. Hold your ground as much as you can and know you have the support of me and other like-minded parents and professionals behind you. When you’re up for it, share: “Look what she does on the ground! She’s brilliant! The way she’s going, she’ll be standing on her own exactly when she’s ready!”
Some people simply lack information and will comply enthusiastically once they learn the benefits. Some don’t know what else to do, but will join in as you show them what else to do instead (“Hey, come play down here on the floor with us, Uncle!”). Some will feel guilty or threatened about their own parenting choices, and some will (often unaware) look to your baby to meet their own needs. Have compassion but know that people will react in different ways! A little bit of propped is okay. Some babies who are used to not being propped just won’t go along with it when someone tries to hold them up!
Some parents like to let visitors know their wishes before they arrive. Many parents tell me they feel like they can’t say anything to certain people. Of course you’re the judge. Be creative about ways to reframe your request that emphasize the brilliance of you and your baby, rather than leave you feeling disempowered.
“I propped my daughter up with pillows, and I really wish that I’d let her learn to get into sitting on her own. I actually ended up doing a consult with someone for my daughter’s asymmetrical crawl (which was caused in part I think by too much of my assistance), and that’s what lead me to begin studies as an Infant Developmental Movement Educator. And what I learned over time is that so often my choices in parenting were coming from my own needs and beliefs, not actually from my daughter’s needs. So my need to assist and prop her was coming from a need to “do” something for her. I wish that I’d given her more autonomy and authenticity in her movement choices. This certainly doesn’t mean that we should not hold and carry our babies! But I think it is amazing when we can bring more consciousness to when and why. And respect is key. Really asking permission and waiting for the answer from our babies. What is it that they are actually wanting and needing…” – Mom A
When To Get Help
Delays are a reality—and it’s okay. No matter what you do (or don’t), many babies experience challenges for a variety of reasons.
If you have a gut feeling about something, follow up on it. At the same time, be aware that not all professionals or approaches follow natural development. If you’re met with “he’s fine, he’ll grow out of it,” that’s your signal to keep looking elsewhere. Ask your baby what he needs—they have a way of calling forth the resources they need!
Allowing my son to grow into the major milestones organically was not a conscious decision until he was 5 months old. Honestly, I was too busy with other things to give it much thought, but when my friends’ babies started rolling and sitting on their own, the questions of my son’s normal development consumed me. Was I working with him enough? Does he spend too much time on his back? Should I be forcing him to sit? Anything I tried to do with him to encourage him into a sitting position was met with a confused look, as if to say, “what do you want me to do, mommy, I don’t get this…” Then, I came across Eliza’s blog and services, and that changed everything. My son will turn 10 months next week. I am quickly learning to manage his anger outbursts because, guess what – he wants it all, and he wants it at once – to talk, walk, roll, lift objects, and reach for stuff on the other side of the room. It all started with coming into a sitting position on his own a few days back, and is snowballing into an all-consuming affair for the whole family. It is messy, and loud, and fun, and exhausting, but most of all my son’s development goes at the pace of his own discoveries. I admit to questioning my ways under external pressures (family, friends, doctors, articles, etc.), but after getting the support from Eliza there was not a doubt in my mind that for my family natural non-prop approach is the best. – Mom V
For further questions and support, check out my services—long distance options available too!
For more blog posts on natural development, see these categories:
Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator® (the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen), Aware Parenting Instructor (Aletha Solter, Ph.D), Body-Mind Centering® (BBC) Practitioner, and is trained as a Feldenkrais® Practitioner.
© Eliza Parker 2015, All Rights Reserved, links welcome