Pic from goodjobandotherthings.com

Notice the difference between the baby’s movement, senses, and expression. Pic from goodjobandotherthings.com

I often get questions about walkers, activity centers, jumpers, and seats for babies. These devices can be tempting! They’re often used as a “safe” holding spot while a caregiver tends to tasks or siblings; or in daycares where caregivers need to attend to more than one child.

Of course you want the best for your baby! Here’s what you need to be aware of regarding these devices and your child’s long-term health.

Note: Many parents aren’t aware of this information, and propping, both in devices and by hand, has become the norm in many cultures. If you’re using these devices, this post is not to judge, but to raise awareness. Consider ways that you can ease your family into less propping time and more floor time.

Placing a baby habitually into upright positions she can’t get into on her own yet, in devices or by hand, often encourages compensation patterns and can make accomplishing “normal” developmental milestones harder. The key here is upright–inclined seats are typically fine so long as she also has floor time for moving freely. Even if it seems like she’s fully propped and supported, somewhere internally she still can’t support herself–otherwise she’d already be doing the position on her own! Often after prolonged use, habitual extension or stiffness takes over in the spine (arching or  difficulty curling into a ball). This compromises development of the lower back and hips, which can make her more susceptible back problems later in life.

Being upright before Baby’s body is ready also calls on her reflexes to do whatever possible to protect her brain. If she can’t hold herself up yet, she’ll experience falls, which may be noticeable or very tiny. I’ve seen reflexes become over-active because the baby is constantly responding to falling. This can prevent Baby from following her natural progression of milestones because what would have been normal movement (such as rolling) is now perceived as falling. I’ve also seen reflexes be under-active (inaccessible, unable to catch herself when she does fall) because the position is ahead of normal reflex development. Reflexes also prepare Baby’s body for the milestones. So without the typical reflex stimulation of gravity on a lying-down body, propping also sometimes results in scooting on the bottom or entirely skipping milestones like crawling on hands-and-knees (which is very important!).

Non-walking babies of all ages often can “stand” or take weight on their legs. This is a healthy sign, but it’s actually a reflex, not a choice! Babies “like” these devices because they bring Baby up higher–you’re absolutely right, what they love is YOU and participating in what you’re doing (even if just by observing). When she’s placed up “higher” (in a position she can’t yet get into or out of on her own), she cannot not attend with her senses to what’s going on. She can’t turn off the sensory stimulation, and her brain must act to physically protect her body. It can be overstimulating, as it’s very arousing for her nervous system. Baby’s movement abilities do not yet match this higher perceptual/sensory state, and the brain is not yet ready to support it. This little person now must compromise conflicting messages–her body tells her to stay low, but we’ve asked her to go beyond what she’s ready for.

It's wonderful to bring Baby up face-to-face while you're holding her.

It’s wonderful to bring Baby up face-to-face while you’re holding her.

What to do, then?

It is wonderful to carry Baby upright, to bring her up to face level for interaction, to sit her up in a high chair for eating, to support her while she wiggles a burp out… But it’s oh so beneficial to balance this upright time with floor time. Meaning, rather than propping Baby up higher “so she can see”—we go down to the floor with Baby! Yay, go on and lie down with Baby, on the floor, together, and enjoy!

Contrary to popular belief, babies actually learn how to sit and stand through rolling and belly-crawling, which build strength, balance, and coordination—not from being sat and stood. So . . . floor time (so they can move as they’re ready) and baby-wearing (so they can feel you moving) are great for Baby’s movement and brain development!

If you’re alone and need a contained, safe space temporarily, I recommend these things:

  • If Baby is young enough, there are soft, flat floor pads with short soft walls on all sides called “Baby Zabu”
  • Create baby-safe spaces throughout your house so that Baby can move freely rather than be confined
  • Is there a way you can carry or wear Baby while you do your task?
  • Communicate to your Baby verbally what you are doing or need to do
  • If you’re concerned about dirtiness or pet hair on the floor, keep a small area clean for your baby’s sake; or move the animals. It’s only temporary!
  • Choose a seat that keeps Baby inclined over a device that keeps Baby upright
  • If you’re still sold on your favorite device, begin by reducing the amount of time spent in it so that both you and Baby can get used to the new possibilities!

Professional Nanny in Seattle WA, recalls:

When I was growing up, it was before all the fancy furniture folks drag around now for the infant. When there was a family thing and a new infant was there, a space would be set aside on the carpet, a blanket spread, surrounded by pillows—stuff every house had. Seemed all of the relations did that.

And walkers—when the kid was ready, she prised herself up on the sofa edge and went back and forth for as long as the strength held, then plopped down. 

I think children need attentive, loving caregivers, not things.

© Elizabeth Parker 2011, All Rights Reserved. Links welcome.
Update, Aug. 2015, here’s a great question from a parent and my answer!
Hi Eliza, I’ve been trying to figure out on my own how baby wearing is not a form of propping. Is there an IDME philosophy around this?
Eliza: Generally speaking, one issue with habitually “propping” in positions they can’t yet get in and out of is the weight-bearing: that it’s asking their body to maintain uprightness before they have the strength, coordination, and reflexes to do so; and to transfer their body weight down through a skeletal structure that’s not yet fully formed for taking weight (for instance, crawling on hands and knees helps the hip joints develop in preparation for standing/walking upright on 2 legs).
In baby wearing, the baby doesn’t have a surface underneath her and isn’t having to support her own weight—her body weight is going through the person carrying. Surfaces tend to make reflexes kick off. Body contact, like in baby carrying, often calms, connects, and/or tones, whereas the body responds to a surface underneath and gravity with reflexes to protect the brain.
Then it also depends on the type of carrier, and if the baby also gets put down or is constantly carried (if the baby is really never put down, you’re on track actually—then there can be some similar issues with movement development, but from a different angle).
Then every baby has his/her own story, such as being born breech and having a certain relationship with uprightness, or severe reflux, or …