A baby-led approach to motor milestones is crucial for optimal brain and body development.

I find there’s confusion though, because a lot of advice encourages “baby’s pace,” yet still within a “parent led” style. Let’s clear this up!

What does baby led mean?

What I call baby led means truly all-out led by Baby. It means that she can get into and out of a position completely on her own, without help from our hands or a device that holds her upright. That is, without help getting into a position or staying there.

It means Baby finds sitting, standing, and walking on her own, without being taught. It’s magical!

While yes, it does mean following a baby’s natural pace, it doesn’t mean a helped pace. Yet it also doesn’t mean dismissing concerns if Baby actually isn’t progressing, just for the sake of “baby’s pace.”

You may not know that the ways you hold and move your baby influence her own movement habits. This happens whether we do so intentionally or not! There are some wonderful handling tips that match and support each stage of development without pushing. I share these when I work with families through sessions and my monthly Milestones Labs.

This approach comes from Infant Developmental Movement Education, the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (OT, among other things).

What does parent led mean?

Parent led, on the other hand, involves assistance from a person or a device to get into or stay in a movement or position. This is also called propping. 

To be clear, this specifically means upright. Inclined is different (leaning back). The difference is in how Baby’s body weight travels down through her bones and joints. Being upright in sitting or standing asks her body to transfer her entire weight down through vertebrae (spinal bones), pelvis, hip joints, leg bones, and ankles that are not yet ready for this task. 

If baby is leaning back into you or in an inclined seat, her body weight transfers down through you or the seat. This is important because your baby’s habits will have an impact on how her bones and joints form!

With a parent led style, you may find your baby constantly asks to be put in sitting, standing, or walking. It’s exciting and stimulating to be up “high”! Actually, it’s over-stimulating.

So which is which?

A Bumbo seat or a standing ‘activity center’ is more obvious—these are upright and considered propping. But I’ve found the following situations can seem unclear when parents are first learning.

Pic Jennifer Lehr

  • Baby likes to stand up and does it himself in your lap (newborn to pulling up to stand): parent led. If this is your baby, this is understandably probably a source of fun for everyone! What you need to know is that this is actually a reflex—when the soles of her feet touch a surface, she can’t notextend them. In other words, she has no choice but to do this movement that looks like standing. This is very different from the intentional standing that comes much later after the body has been prepared by many other milestones.
  • Baby pulls into sitting by holding onto your hands (baby “sit up”): parent led. Some babies do have more flexor tone and will end up attempting “baby sit ups” while in your lap. Regardless, here’s how you can decipher: ask yourself if baby can get into this position if you weren’t doing ___.
  • Holding baby in sitting on the floor or on your lap (with a boppy pillow or held out away from you (not leaning into you)): parent led. Same, ask if baby can get into sitting on her own if you weren’t holding or using the boppy.
  • Placing baby in sitting—she stays, but can’t get into sitting herself yet: parent led. This is a very common thing to do, and you are not to blame! But if she can’t get into sitting by herself, then she will be dependent on you to get her into and out of it. She needs you to do it for her.
  • Moving yourself forward alongside Baby who’s walking and holding your hand: parent led. This one might surprise you. If baby’s not “hanging” with arms up, that’s an excellent first step! But if both of you are moving, Baby can’t be in control of 100% of his own body weight. Instead, make your role “human jungle gym” ? so that you remain stable (in one place, solid) while your baby climbs and maneuvers around you. This ensures she’s the one in control of her own body weight, which develops safety habits for the future!
  • Baby is still __ months old and still can’t sit: baby led! Sitting is the most different. True independent functional sitting comes later than propped sitting (read: often much later than your pediatrician will expect and inquire of you). There are, however, times when babies benefit from support. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or gut feelings—there is no such thing as “worrying too much.”  More here >

How to know when baby is ready

Readiness has to do with more than the strength needed to stay in a position. Getting into and out of it is even more important. Without this, it probably isn’t your intention, but Baby is truly stuck and dependent.

You need to know that your pediatrician most likely will not know this information and may advise you toward parent-led practices. Most peds are not trained in how reflexes and motor patterns arise throughout the entire first year. Our traditional western medical approach tends to focus on pathology, not wellness. A baby led approach addresses your baby’s development far before reaching the point of ‘pathology.’

What can you do with your baby, then?!

If you feel like I’ve suddenly taken away everything you’ve been doing with baby—not to worry! This is not a guilt trip, but a learning curve. This is new information for many parents.

For more info on how to get started, here’s your next read!