If infants are ready to do something, they will do it. In fact, when they are ready, they have to do it.

Magda Gerber

Why We Need to Relax About Physical Development in Babies

How often have you heard questions like ‘Is she crawling yet?’ or ‘Is he walking yet?’ when adults talk about babies. I’m going to hazard a guess that these questions are fairly familiar to you, because we place a lot of value on milestones such as these. As a result we are often keen for babies to move on to the next stage – to do what they can’t yet do.

There are a couple of flaws in this mindset though:

  • when we try to hurry things along and encourage babies to do things before they are ready to, we interfere with their individual, organic developmental trajectory.

Dr. Emmi Pikler’s work on natural gross motor development illustrates beautifully how physical skills evolve, demonstrating how babies move through the sequences of gross motor development with grace, fluidity and ease when allowed to do so independently. She emphasises that it’s not what a baby can do physically that is important, but rather how; movement should be “secure and harmonious” to avoid bad posture and the many related issues which stem from this in later life such as weak joints, a lack of flexibility and muscle pain.

Before a baby is able to sit, stand, or walk, he has to figure out how to find balance in each incremental position that will prepare him to reach the next major milestone. Before he intentionally rolls over onto his tummy, he will practice balancing on his side. Before he is able to sit or stand, he must first learn to balance with more and more of his body weight off the ground until he’s finally able to support his weight in the upright, standing position.

-Deborah Carlisle Solomon

When we don’t interfere - when we refrain from putting babies in positions which they can’t get into or out of themselves, such as propping up a baby who cannot yet sit independently – muscular-skeletal development is optimal, as are related abilities such as balance and coordination.

  • when we interfere in motor development – when we offer ‘help’ to the baby so that she can get into certain positions – we rob her of the satisfaction and sense of achievement that comes from doing so on her own, in her own way.

Letting babies discover things for themselves makes learning all the more rich. There is joy, excitement, curiosity, frustration and, at times, anger – all of which play an important role in learning, and working out how to learn.

When a baby is ready, simple equipment added to his play environment encourages a full range of movement much more so than devices such as walkers, bouncers, or your hands helping him to sit or walk. They allow him to try things out at his own pace, and to progress only when his body is fully ready.

  • When we’re busy focusing on what a baby can’t do, we risk missing all the beautiful, wonderous things that a baby can do.

The unfolding of a baby’s motor development truly is an amazing thing to witness. Given space and freedom to move, a baby will move through the stages of motor development – we just need to trust.

Trust, wait, watch, and enjoy and celebrate what your baby can do now.

Let us not force the infant. Let us provide well for her, but let us not disturb the slow, steady process that has its own rhythm and course with every child.

-Emmi Pikler