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In part one of this two-part series on early motor skill development we discussed exercises for infants and young toddlers, from antigravity positions that help babies to gain core strength for postural control, to tummy time to encourage neck extension and additional support. Once your infant or young toddler has mastered those steps, they can dive into even more strength work to form the skills they will use to sit, crawl, stand, and eventually walk. Let’s pick up with sitting independently.

Sitting Independently

Good control against gravity will promote development with the next motor stages, which include crawling. If your little one seems to be having difficulty sitting upright, and shows a rounded back and frequent falls, I recommend looking back to the activities in part one and focus on developing the foundation, rather than forcing them to the next skill. We often remind parents that while it is exciting to see progress, ensuring they have each building block in place will help encourage stronger development overall.

A Look at Supported Seating Gear

Supported seating is very popular with parents, but a word of caution. These seats (a Bumbo seat, for example) fix the hips in place, limiting movement and feedback from the hip girdle, which is necessary for the righting reactions to sit alone without support. If a seat that supports the hips and legs in this way is the only way your child can sit unassisted, then they are probably not ready to be in this position, and that’s ok! Again, work with the basics and build that foundation, and they’ll find this position in their own time.

This holds true for other supportive movement-based toys like jumpers, walkers, and activity centers as well. These toys support the child in an unnatural way (through the pelvis) and alter your little one’s feedback that they receive in their sensory systems, such as pressure in the joints through the ground.

They also minimize falls so the child doesn’t have an opportunity to adjust their motor patterns. Putting children in these toys when they are too young isn’t recommended either, because their legs and hips (not to mention their ability maintain a stable posture) are not yet developed. Although popular, equipment and toys like these should be used very sparingly or not at all.

How to Offer Support for Safety When Learning to Sit Upright

When they are ready, adding support around their back and to their sides, such as a Boppy or pillows, can help provide some touch feedback when they make their postural adjustments and also help support them when they topple over.

We recommend practicing these skills on firm flooring as opposed to something like a couch, which can be dangerous if the child falls. Now let’s talk about how to help promote this development. Here are a few activities to try when your child is ready to sit on his/her own.

Activities to Encourage Sitting Independently

First, offer a stationary toy while your child is seated on the floor. Your baby will move from supporting their weight to being hands free, and eventually they will begin to activate toys or pick things up.

After enough practice, when your child is comfortably sitting upright, place enticing toys just out of reach or to their sides to help motivate them to reach forward, up at eye level, or rotate left and right, which will help them learn to maintain their balance.

Once they master stability in sitting with stationary toys, add moving objects so they develop visual tracking. A moving object may include a push activation car that moves across their field of vision. You could roll them a ball or try blowing one bubble at a time and let them follow it visually. This will help them be able to move their head and eyes while maintaining their balance.

Objects at eye level are appropriate, however looking upwards will often cause your child to fall backwards, so make sure there is ample padding behind them when using bubbles since you can’t always control where they go.

On the Move! It’s Time to Crawl

Crawling is a huge milestone and one that should not be skipped. Crawling develops:

  • Antigravity control
  • Weight bearing through hands, which affects handwriting in the future
  • Helps to integrate reflexes
  • Is the first cross-lateral alternating organized motor pattern that we have.

Many kids skip crawling and go straight to walking, and sometimes parents view it as having strong gross motor skills, however, skipping crawling or showing atypical crawling patterns can be a red flag in development. While there may not be any immediate concerns, it is not uncommon to see infants who skipped crawling and later have poor fine motor and handwriting skills, or poor overall gross motor coordination with higher-level skills like pedaling or climbing a ladder or walking up stairs. Scooting, or bunny hopping (instead of alternating sides of the body the child pulls both legs under their butt at the same time), are often atypical motor patterns for mobility that are seen.

Activities to Facilitate Crawling

  • Do bicycle legs early on with your baby
  • Have them weight bear on their hands. This can be done sitting, rolling over a bolster, or in to prone activities mentioned in part one.
  • Use a tunnel! Tunnels are great because in order to go through them the child has to get on their hands and knees. For older kids who skipped crawling, this is a great way to motivate them. Build an obstacle course to put enticing things on the other end of the tunnel.
  • For older kids, build a fort or “cave” that is low to the ground. You can bring in fun fidgets and then do some tummy time in the cave. When a child is manipulating an object when they are weight bearing through their elbows on their tummy, it forces them to use primarily forearm, writing, and hand muscles to manipulate instead of whole arm movement.

If any or all of these foundational skills are difficult for your child and you don’t seem to be able to engage them, do not hesitate to reach out to your primary physician to see if further developmental assessment is necessary. You can also reach out to us here at St. David’s Center for more insight. Visit our Occupational Therapy page to learn more about our approach.

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