When I worked in the infant room of an American childcare center about ten years ago, an emphasis was placed on helping the babies gain enough muscle strength to reach physical developmental milestones in an appropriate timeframe. One such milestone was the ability to sit independently. “Sitting independently” is defined by American child development experts as sitting upright for an extended period of time without being propped up. Babies typically acquire this skill between 4 and 7 months of age.
Babies in our childcare center who had reached this milestone seemed happy to be able to hold toys and look around the room without slumping over or needing to place their hands on the floor. The only problem was that they didn’t yet know how to get into or out of the seated position on their own. After some time spent happily playing with toys, the babies would eventually topple over. Of course we didn’t want the babies to get hurt when the inevitable fall would occur, so we would surround them with “Boppy” nursing pillows to help cushion the landing. We would then sit the babies up again. We believed that all of the time spent practicing sitting would help build the babies’ core muscles and that the new vantage point would aid their cognitive development. Plus the babies just seemed happy in the upright position!
When I started working in a German childcare center, I was surprised to observe that the skill of “independent sitting” (as I knew it) was not being promoted. One day I sat a baby up and put some pillows around her so that she could safely practice sitting. My coworkers quickly told me that I shouldn’t do that. If I wanted the baby to sit up, I would have to let her sit in my lap. Otherwise she should just lie flat on the floor. This seemed silly to me, but I went along with it.
I have since learned that most Germans believe an infant should never be placed in a position that he or she can’t get into or out of alone. “Sitting independently” in Germany is defined as the ability of a baby to maneuver itself into an upright sitting position and then get out of that position without assistance. This is typically achieved between 7 and 9 months of age. By placing a baby in a seated position, you are supposedly preventing him or her from learning how to get into that position. You could also theoretically warp or otherwise damage the child’s spine by forcing it into a position it is not yet ready for. Even sitting a baby upright in your lap for too long is frowned upon by the hardcore followers of this philosophy. They believe that it’s best for baby to spend absolutely as much time as possible lying flat. This goes far beyond the “tummy time” recommendations that American parents are familiar with.
Eventually the babies in both the American and the German childcare centers that I worked in learned how to sit, crawl, and walk. I don’t know if the American babies will be more likely to have back problems when they are older or if the German babies will have more mental deficiencies due to their lack of early new visual vantage points. I have a feeling that the babies from both countries will turn out just fine, though. That’s the funny thing about raising babies. Two families (or cultures) can have completely different child-rearing philosophies. They can both be convinced that their diametrically opposed methods are the best. In the end, provided that the parents’ actions were rooted in love, the babies from both families (or cultures) can have an equally happy future.
Note: One difficulty I have with comparing German and US childrearing practices is that my experiences in the US are becoming ever more distant. It is possible that the methods I learned ten years ago are now just as out of vogue in the US as they are in Germany. My perusal of a few baby development websites seems to suggest that this isn’t necessarily true, however. While there are a few obscure American sites promoting the non-baby-propping approach to sitting, the majority of big-name parenting sites seem to align with what I observed when I worked there (http://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/sit-up/, http://www.parents.com/baby/development/physical/stages-of-sitting/#page=1).
In Part 2 of my “To Sit or Not to Sit” post, I will describe how the German and American baby “sitting” philosophies seem to impact each country’s baby gear market.