I sometimes receive questions about how the Infant Developmental Movement Education (IDME) approach to what I call “baby-led” motor milestones compares with other approaches that deliberately teach babies to sit, stand, and walk. Here’s my perspective. (Note, this article is expository in nature; if you’re a parent new to baby-led motor development, this and this are great places to start!)

The Questions

Some of the questions and topics folks are wondering about:

  • Sentiment that it’s important, necessary, or useful to actively teach babies to sit, stand, and walk
  • Assumption that babies need to practice or be shown and then will learn how on their own
  • Belief that parents should “teach” these skills or that babies don’t know how
  • Ancestral practices of purposefully holding babies upright in sitting and standing starting very early
  • Eliciting reflexes in order to spur their development (note, this is not about the gripping reflex and hanging on, but about deliberately enticing motor milestones)
  • Babies who are taught seem to be ‘ahead’ in their motor skills
  • Concern that if they’re not upright, their bones will not form properly or will remain ‘soft’
  • What about cultures/tribes where babies are held a lot more?
  • Or cultures that don’t put babies on the ground until they can walk?

Many of these questions come out of a general smattering of traditional parenting advice. Some arise from comparison to an ancestral lifestyle. IDME is not specifically part of the Paleo lineage. However, it is based on a natural progression of reflexes and movements that happen in typical development when not interfered with (think a ‘whole foods’ version of motor skills!).

My first acknowledgment would be the situation. If survival is truly an issue, or the environment is unfit for being on the ground, then staying safe remains a basic first need and trumps luxuriating in hanging out on the floor. I’m assuming it also means that these people would get a significant amount of movement in general just by living in their environment, if running, hunting, or physical outdoor work is highly valued or required for survival.

Beyond this, here are my thoughts. Note, there are different types of reflex responses, such as primitive reflexes, equilibrium responses, and righting reactions. In this article, I refer to them all together as “reflexes.”

1) Ancestors, Ontogeny, and Phylogeny

In the case of first year motor patterns, the “ancestors” we look to in IDME are not humans, but the evolution of species. Human development, starting in the womb (ontogeny), has patterns that reflect back to both invertebrate and vertebrate species, such as sponges, starfish, reptiles, and of course mammals (phylogeny). In the Body-Mind Centering work (where IDME comes from), we look at all these influences in terms of embodiment–how they affect our movement and states of mind.

IDME’s baby-led development and handling practices are based on honoring and responding to this innate progression of reflexes and movement patterns shown by typically developing human nervous systems, rather than on what was done by particular cultures or groups of people. These reflexes and movement patterns build on themselves and lead the neurotypical child into sitting, standing, and walking completely on his/her own.

2) Reflexive vs intentional movement

Reflexes are the building blocks of movement. Our movements are first reflexive (the body “can’t help it”), and then later intentional (“I want that”). This means reflexes ‘lay the tracks’ in our bodies for movements that we will later do on purpose, to satisfy our motivations. Here’s a very basic example: ‘flexor withdrawal’ (pulling away) and ‘extensor thrust’ (pushing against) in the legs, along with ‘crossed extension’ (alternating these two simultaneously) help carve the pathways in the body for later walking. Early standing is a reflex (the baby can’t not stand when the soles of the feet touch a surface), while the later “pulling up” to standing is intentional.

Another function of reflexes is to protect the brain. Eliciting reflexes and standing babies before they can do it by themselves will engage not only these reflexes, but also this protective state of mind, before engaging intentional movement on the baby’s part.

Reflexes can be elicited circumstantially, such as by falling or touching something hot; or manually, through standing babies up, bouncing, stretching, or by stimulating an area of the body with tactile sensation (like tickling a foot). Circumstantial eliciting of reflexes does not only happen when there’s danger as mentioned; they’re also an innate response to gravity and space, elicited as babies move around on the floor. For example, un-taught sitting emerges because a series of reflexes leads them through a progression of weight-shifting, pushing against the floor, head-righting (knowing where “up” is), and more, until one day they ‘end up’ in sitting. After this, they’re able to intentionally utilize the same pathway to get themselves into sitting.

Embodiment: it’s how movement feels inside you, how you feel about yourself and life, how these two things integrate together inside you, how you relate to the many layers of your physical body, and the mind states that go along with each. 

Think about the embodiment (the experience of) of building skills for moving and interacting with the world based on survival and “can’t help it” reflexes elicited by people bigger and more powerful than you on whom you depend, or by a society that requires participation in a certain way. Also consider the embodiment/experience of your movement arising on its own, with the next reflex triggering naturally–not by reading danger, but by simply moving around on the floor, motivated by your curiosities and desires, and discovering your skills for yourself, in your own timing, having a keen sense then of what you’re capable of or not. Consider the difference between habituating to building your skills and learning habits based on what others require of you (external motivation) versus on your own curiosities, intentions, and goals (internal motivation). From the baby’s perspective, it’s a matter of forced action vs choice.

Looking at this objectively, without judging one as ‘better,’ the former has benefits in an environment that calls for survival, safety, or function within certain requirements for life in particular society or climate. The latter has benefits for typical life in today’s society in which we need people prepared to think for themselves, lead effectively, and solve some hefty local and global challenges. When we take a response to one situation and drop it into the other environment—in either direction—that’s when challenges can arise.

3) Needs

Typically developing babies will sit, stand, and walk on their own. Therefore, being taught to do so is not a legitimate need (with the exception of survival or function within a specific environment). If it’s not the baby’s internal need or a survival need, then we need to consider whose need it meets. If a baby is allowed to find the upright positions on his own, we know his body is ready for it once he does it—otherwise he’d already be doing it. Again, consider the difference between building movement literacy, learning skills, perceptions of yourself and others, and ability to express yourself on your own needs versus the needs of other people.

4) Bone formation

Babies’ bones are indeed still forming; and, as the saying goes, “form follows function.” Doesn’t it make sense, then, that babies need to be taking weight through their bones in order for the bones to ‘harden’ or form properly? Let’s clarify this. There is also a line of concern among some that if not taught to stand/walk, babies’ bones would remain soft and not develop as they should.

What we now know is that all milestones in the progression of neurotypical development that is not interfered with (left to itself to accomplish uprightness) actually help form the shaping of the bones, joints, and movement mechanics. For instance:

  • Pushing up on elbows and hands (while on the tummy) helps form the C-curves in the cervical and lumbar spine (neck and lower back).
  • The months before standing, spent pushing into their arms to pivot in a circle and push backwards, belly crawling, and crawling on hands & knees, provide structural stimulation to the upper body (hands, arms, shoulder girdle, spine). This helps the upper body establish strength and organization that feeds downward through the spine before becoming biped movers (on two legs–feeding upward through the spine). It also helps develop hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.
  • Pushing forward with alternating feet on the tummy (the fully integrated belly crawling pattern) helps form the organization of the ankles, knees, and hips before taking weight. Hands & knees crawling also takes weight through the femurs (thigh bone) before whole-leg standing/walking, which plays an important part in carving the hip sockets.

“Form follows function” indeed, as the bones shape around what the baby is doing–particularly around their ability to maintain their own body weight! Babies taught to be upright before completing their progression will have a vastly different experience of this structural stimulation.

From my perspective, placing babies directly into sitting, standing, and walking, as well as eliciting continued reflexes beyond when naturally called for, encourages the opposite of strengthening the bones in a mechanically efficient way. It can bypass nature’s innate preparation for the managing of force, providing less chance for movement to shape the bones/joints and placing physical stress directly onto those soft bones that are not yet ideally formed for the responsibility of transferring the body’s entire weight in an upright position.

When discussing first year motor development, many sources refer to building strength and coordination. But here’s the missing link. It’s also about developing the structure (bones and joints) that both supports and works in tandem with the muscles and reflexes/nervous system. We cannot move without strength and coordination; but we also cannot move without structure.

5) “Strength”

Reflexes absolutely do have strength. Movement triggered by reflexes can be very, very strong! In my experience, nervous system strength is very different from muscle strength, although each is involved with the other. Reflexive strength has a magnetic “locking in” quality, while muscle strength has an active gusto. But this sense of reflexive strength doesn’t mean that the person (skeletal structure, sensory integration, ability to measure distance from the floor, and more) is ready to habitually or fully support him/herself while managing full body weight.

Muscle strength arises from intrinsically motivated movement–out of the baby’s intentions. Reflex strength arises out of the body’s and brain’s need to protect (i.e., to hang on tight in the Moro reflex). These reflexes are incredibly strong because they absolutely must accomplish the job when they’re called on. Reflexes that carve pathways for forthcoming movement are instigators: their zing sets the baby in motion. From there, muscle strength and tone (along with tone in other body systems) carries movement for the long haul, calling on the underlying reflexive zing when needed.

6) Being “ahead”

I think it’s helpful to consider the concept of being developmentally ahead through the lens of relationship to surroundings and needs. Why is being ahead useful or desired, or is it in relation to concern about a child being ‘behind’?

In IDME, we often find that an appearance of being further ahead in ability to stand and walk (doing so sooner than they find it on their own or sooner than their peers) does not necessarily correlate with being ahead in other areas. Actually, I consistently see the opposite: that babies who’ve found upright positions on their own tend to be ‘ahead’ of their peers who have been propped/taught in terms of actual tone, strength, balance, and coordination–and in not just their movement, but also in communication skills, confidence, intrinsic motivation, reading/learning skills, psychological and relationship skills, not being afraid to fail, and unquestioned confidence in going after their motivations/goals.

Another point to consider is what we now know about crucial benefits of cross-lateral movement on the brain, helping develop the band of nerve fibers between the two hemispheres. Dr. Carla Hannaford has done significant work on this topic. Early walkers can miss some of this and other benefits of cross-lateral hands & knees crawling.

In summary

There are many factors to consider. In IDME, we consistently see tremendous differences across the board between babies who find sitting, standing, and walking on their own and those who are taught.

If you’re reading this as a parent interested in a baby-led approach but have already sat, stood, or walked your baby (or older child), there are still many fun ways you can work with this process. This article is more informational in tone, but contact me and we’ll have a genuine conversation!

© Eliza Parker 2018, All Rights Reserved, links welcome

Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator® (work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen), Aware Parenting Instructor (Aletha Solter, Ph.D), Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and trained Feldenkrais® Practitioner.