Exactly how do babies figure out how to sit? What if we put ourselves “in Baby’s shoes”? In Parts 1 & 2, we began looking at how babies actually learn to sit, why it’s best to allow them to discover it themselves rather than prop them in sitting, and how to know when they’re ready for sitting. Let’s delve further.

What Are We Talking About? Try it Yourself

So that you have an embodied, not just intellectual, idea of what we’re talking about, come roll around on the floor with me for a moment.

  1. Lie on the floor on your back.
  2. Come up to sitting. How did you do it?
  3. Try coming straight up by lifting your head/torso. Where did you feel the effort? Babies and young children are not typically physically able to do this yet, which tells us it’s not the most efficient way for them.
  4. Try rolling to your side to come up. How much effort did this take compared to the previous way?
  5. Break it down incrementally like your baby:
    • Lie on your side. Could you use a hand or two to play with toys?
    • On your side, support yourself on an elbow. You have one supporting arm and one free arm
    • On your side, support yourself on your hand.
    • Now from the above position, reach for something with your free hand and discover how this could bring you to sitting.

There are other movements through which babies learn to sit, but this gives an idea of the inner connections they are making.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

When babies discover sitting for themselves, they lay the neural “tracks” of the pathway. Only then can it become a well-used route through repetition and experimentation. Because they have carved their way up, it is easier for them to re-trace the pathway back down. This play between pushing away from the earth and releasing toward it at their choosing develops a sense of safety.

Learning to come to sitting by pushing up from a side position

While “laying the tracks,” Baby is also learning to perceive space and distance. If she takes a typical route to sitting, she may travel through side-lying. As she moves incrementally from side-lying to elbow-supported to hand-supported to sitting, she internally “measures” the distance from the ground to where she in space.

What does all this mean? That when Baby falls, it is not as scary because she has already negotiated the journey, she has developed good falling skills, and she knows where she is in space. Some babies propped in sitting will still find a pathway through side-lying (or shifting weight more to one side); but in my experience, most will either re-route themselves to avoid going off center or develop other compensations.


If you have already sat your baby: through play, help your baby find options–different ways to come to sitting. This will help her lay movement tracks, and it’s never too late to do this.

To others: When we prop babies in sitting, we can prevent them from “laying the tracks” of this important skill in the most efficient manner.  Think of how often we adults get up and down from (or complain about) the floor. Putting Baby into sitting before she can do so herself denies her this chance to learn about gravity; so when she falls over, she must rely ever more strongly on reflexes that can become overpowering and make later milestones more difficult.

Stay tuned for Part 4: The Psychology of Sitting

© Elizabeth Parker 2011, All Rights Reserved

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