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Why We Practice Natural Gross Motor Development

The question is not how we can “teach” an infant to move well and correctly, using cleverly thought up, artificially constructed, complicated measures, using exercises and gymnastics.  It is simply a matter of offering an infant the opportunity – or, more precisely, not to deprive him of this opportunity – to move according to his inherent ability. Dr Emmi Pikler, The Development of Movement

When N. turned six months old, we started baby-led weaning. Once a a day we would put him in the high chair and offer him some avocado or slices of toast. He didn’t have much patience for this, and often fussed. Just from looking at him, I had a suspicion as to why: he looked really uncomfortable in the high chair. It wasn’t surprising. He wasn’t really sitting up properly even with the aid of pillows and the boppi, so to expect him to sit with relatively little support in a high chair was maybe a bit much.  Still, he was clearly interested in food, he was ready to eat solids, but he just looked so sad slouching in his chair.

Around the same time, I came across the idea of natural gross motor development for infants and children in this blog post at Elevating Childcare. Something clicked for me.  I stopped propping him up to sit and forgot about tummy time. Instead, I placed him on the floor on his back with a few toys. Carl and I took to holding N. in our laps at mealtimes, with our arms giving him much more support than the high chair. Before too long, N., who had been relatively unmobile,  was turning over both ways, then scooting around on the floor, able to reach any toy of interest.  I was amazed.

Since then, my husband and I have joyfully watched as our son has progressed from wiggling across the floor to army crawling, to pulling up on furniture, to sitting independently (around the age of nine months I believe) to properly crawling, walking and running. We see him take caution when encountering new terrain, catch himself when he falls, and generally move with confidence. Both my husband and I are convinced that natural gross motor development is great for our kids.

It doesn’t take much time on google to find articles about this topic, but I would like to offer up a few reasons from both our thinking and our experience why I would encourage any parent to consider taking themselves out of the equation when it comes to their child’s motor skill development.

G. age 13 months scales a chair and the kitchen table for the first time. (Mom is at hand and supervising closely!)
G. age 13 months scales a chair and the kitchen table for the first time. (Mom is at hand and supervising closely!)

1. Letting your baby develop his motor skills on his own tells him, ‘You are enough’.

I firmly believe that our actions speak volumes to our children, even as babies.  When it comes to gross motor skills (maybe even any skill), pushing our kids to progress subtly communicates that they aren’t capable of progressing on their own and that we somehow aren’t satisfied with who they are and where they are developmentally at this moment in time.

N. walked at 14 months. G. is 13 months now, and I don’t think he’s even close to walking. I am passionately ok with this. I am immensely proud of his progress, I love him exactly as he is right now, and I communicate this daily by choosing to trust his pace and not encourage or assist skills that are presently beyond his capability.

2. Transitional movements are just as important as hitting ‘milestones’.

From watching my sons, I can see that development, specifically motor development in this case, is  a continuum, rather than a discrete set of milestones that babies are meant to reach at certain times and in a certain order.  When a baby is placed in a position that he cannot achieve on his own, this ignores the continuum.  I don’t think this is a good thing for a couple or reasons.

Firstly, I think that transitional movements really help the baby develop the strength needed to sustain the bigger ‘milestones’ (for example, pushing up on the arms from prone develops the muscles needed to pull his body weight into a standing position).  While babies who are placed in sitting or standing positions before they can reach them on their own will eventually develop the strength and coordination to get there on their own, my gut feeling tells me that the more gentle approach is to let them use these transitional movements to develop the strength first.

Secondly, surely being able to get into a sitting or standing position is just as important (and exciting) as sitting or standing itself? If those movements are just as important, then my instinct is to let the baby practice them until mastery – with mastery defined as moving along the continuum.

3. I see natural gross motor development as safer.

Most of this reasoning is anecdotal and common sense: if a baby is walked around, steadied by an adult, what happens when he starts to fall when he is walking independently?  My concern is that he would reach for someone’s hand above his head where he is used to being steadied, instead of throwing out his arms in front of him to catch his fall.  Face plant.  Ouch.  (There is an illustration of this in the article Don’t Stand Me Up) Going back to transitional movements for a moment, if a baby has the coordination to move themselves into a sitting position, they probably have the coordination to move themselves out of it safely as well – instead of falling to the side or backward (or fussing until they are helped).

I will say this for my boys –they are excellent at falling.  Sometimes it’s unfortunate and they are close to a wall or a piece of furniture and they bump their head, but most of the time, if they fall, they are hardly phased.  I attribute this to the fact that they often manage this pretty cool rolling motion through their spine that means their head doesn’t hit the floor.

4. I have a decreasing tolerance for ‘fuss’.

I don’t particularly mean my baby fussing, although I know for a fact that N. is not the only baby who hated tummy time.  He even hated being propped up into sitting. Little wonder – he was wobbly, insecure, and uncomfortable.  When he was able to roll over onto his tummy, or come up into sitting on his own, it was a completely different story.  He was strong, confident and happy – and not fussy.

While that’s one side of fussiness, I really mean that my tolerance for fussing over my baby myself is decreasing.  To put it bluntly, I just can’t be bothered: the pillows, the boppi, the soothing, the propping, the adjusting, the monitoring, the evaluating, the little guilt trips that I’m not helping him enough, that he’s not practicing often enough.  When I stopped mandating that N. spend time sitting up everyday, I found so much more space to breath.  I relaxed.  When he was happy lying on his back playing with a few toys, I let him stay happy on his back, rather than seeing it as an opportune time to bring him into sitting, which would usually destroy his mood. As I held my son in my lap at meals, he spent more and more time eating, obviously enjoying the food, instead of fussing in the high chair.  The tension that resulted from my fussiness over how he was developing abated.

I realize that a lot of parents can feel quite guilty or even defensive about parenting choices they make, and I don’t want anyone to feel guilty or a need to justify themselves; however, my growing feeling with natural gross motor development is that it is really something worth considering, but not many parents think about it.  I really hope that you’ll spend some time thinking about the topic.

I didn't think twice about helping my baby roll over, sit up and stand - until sitting in the high chair looked so wrong.
I didn’t think twice about helping my baby roll over, sit up and stand – until sitting in the high chair looked so wrong.

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