When a baby learns to sit up independently, parents have a delightful realization: They are no longer solely responsible for propping up this tiny human, whether it's on their laps or with the help of a baby seat. Suddenly, your little one seems oddly grown-up as he chills on the rug with his favorite stacking cups, even if you're just a few feet away. (After all, sitting means he's one step closer to rocking into a crawl.)
We asked New York City pediatrician Alison Mitzner, MD, as well as NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital's Robert Cafaro and Megan Conklin for a breakdown of how babies get to sitting pretty.
WHEN DO BABIES START SITTING UP ON THEIR OWN?
Around month four, your baby will likely able to sit up with some help from you—he might be on the floor and you're holding his waist for support. Over time, he'll need less help. "Milestones can vary for each child, and although typically babies can sit unsupported at six months, it can be a few months sooner or later," says Mitzner. As Mitzner explains, babies tend to "tripod" forward at first, meaning they lean forward to support themselves with both hands.
WHAT MILESTONES COME BEFORE SITTING?
The key to sitting is having enough head, neck and back control. Looking at your baby during tummy time on the floor, which Mitzner says should be encouraged from birth, is a good way to judge progress.
"Babies start to develop their neck and back muscles during the first few months of life. Your baby will start to lift his chest and head, and this will strengthen his muscles," Mitzner says.
WHAT IF YOUR BABY HATES TUMMY TIME?
Tummy time is crucial, and if your baby seems frustrated, know this is normal. "Tummy time can be difficult for babies to tolerate for long periods, but you should aim to do it a few times a day," says Cafaro.
And just like you might need a Rihanna-heavy playlist to get you through a run, babies need motivation, too. Try to make floor time fun as you're encouraging what Conklin calls "transitional movements," such as reaching, turning and shifting. "Many babies respond to toys that show cause and effect, light up, are musical, or have a mirror, but it's the placement of the toy that's key," says Conklin.
If baby is on his belly, she suggests putting the toy within or just beyond their reach. "This will encourage movement, balance, and problem solving, and as they begin to move their head and body, varying the placement of the toy will encourage them to turn their head and shift their body," she says. It's this strengthening that, as Cafaro says, "sets the foundation for rolling, sitting and standing."
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR BABY PRACTICE SITTING UP?
Once baby starts to push up on his arms and lift his chest and head, experiment with propping him up to sit on the floor, using your legs or a nursing pillow for support. You may want to show him how it's done, but resist the urge to always plop him into a perfect tripod. "It's important for babies to also learn how to get into sitting by themselves, so give them the chance to learn," says Cafaro. The American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests placing toys in front of a baby who is learning to sit, to help them focus as they are practicing balancing.
Be patient as your little one develops his skills and strength. "A baby may sit without support initially for just a few seconds, and may get tired easily, or you may see them getting fussy," says Mitzner.
"If you notice that your baby is no longer able to hold themselves upright or is tilting at their trunk or neck, switch them to another position, like on their stomach or back," says Cafaro.
What about floor seats that restrain babies in a seated position? Although they can feel like lifesavers (sometimes you just need a bathroom break!), don't rely on them for long periods of time. "Infant seats and other items like car seats and swings keep babies from learning how to use their postural muscles correctly," she says.
HOW CAN I KEEP MY BABY SAFE WHILE PRACTICING SITTING?
Repeat after us: Don't leave baby unattended. "Your baby may need a little help adjusting their arms and body, and may get themselves into positions that they are unable to get out of, so it's important to always supervise them and make sure they're on a soft, firm surface like a rug or play mat," says Cafaro.
Mitzner also suggests that parents fully childproof their homes even before babies are sitting solo. "Around the time your baby is learning to sit they will start to learn to roll over as well, so you can put them on the floor and let them practice and explore, but do keep a close eye on them," says Mitzner.
WHAT ARE SIGNS OF A DEVELOPMENTAL DELAY?
Let your pediatrician know if your baby is nine months old and can't support himself while sitting. "Your doctor can provide a referral to a physical or occupational therapist to examine developmental skills like rolling, tummy time, sitting, standing, and play skills," says Conklin.
Of course, all babies should be seen frequently for well visits during their first year of life. "Your pediatrician will be checking developmental milestones at each visit, but if you have specific concerns, you should always call before your next scheduled appointment," Mitzner says.