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I wish someone had told me...

I wish someone had told me that babies will learn to roll, crawl, sit and walk without my help; they don’t need walkers, bouncers or to be propped up with cushions; and that to allow infants these independent achievements might even be beneficial.


This doesn’t sound like such a radical statement, but allowing infants complete and unhurried freedom in their motor development, as advocated by Dr Emmi Pikler, goes against the cultural grain more than I supposed.


I didn’t know about the Pikler approach to infant care when my first two children were born. I didn’t put them in baby-walkers, bumbo seats, or other devices - but more because I considered them to be pointless clutter than out of any principle!


Actually - someone did tell me this when my third baby was tiny - at a Pikler conference in London: the first conference I have been to where a breast-feeding baby was not at all out of place! The ideas resonated, but I didn’t take the time to read or think more deeply about it at that time.


When he was a few months old - alert and interested, but unable to sit independently yet, let alone get himself into a sitting position - I thought: well, nice ideas, Pikler people, but really what’s the harm in propping him up so he can see better? So he can look at board books? Play with the toys and natural objects in my little treasure basket that I made specially?


To be honest, it’s fine - we could all do with one less thing to worry about. As long as you’re broadly in tune with your baby, I don’t think this is a big deal to get hung up about. My children (healthy and agile and developing typically) were propped up with curved cushions and wedged into highchairs and booster seats before they were ready to sit independently. Do whatever you feel happy about - seriously, I don’t rate this as an issue to lose sleep over or fall out with the in-laws about!


But I still wish I had known about this idea, as I would have done differently if I’d known more. So that’s why I am sharing it with you. Here’s why I find it persuasive, and how Pikler’s ideas interact with my own experience.


The first thing to say is that these ideas are underpinned by a secure attachment relationship with an attentive, responsive, warm parent/care-giver, and are not an argument for less care and attention. Infants are both helpless and capable simultaneously. We meet their needs through the full attention and authentic care we give. More on this next time.


At the same time as being tiny little weaklings, infants are masters of their early learning: they are experts when it comes to play, communication and motor development. We know this, and can witness it in our own child, if we take the time to observe. It is extraordinary and wonderous!


The thing is, if we sit a child up, for example, they slump or they fall over! Even when they can sit comfortably and happily, if they can’t get into and out of sitting position by themselves, there may be little accidents. We can minimise this with a bit of tactical propping and wedging. We can pad their falls with cushions. In any case, they recover quickly from small bumps. But if we just lie them down and wait for them to sit all by themselves - what happens? 1. It takes longer. 2. Different things for each child (if you want to, you can take the opportunity to observe curiously what your child does!)


A few typical examples on a physical level: they study their hands or taste their toes; they explore and extend their range of movement; they reach and stretch for nearby toys and objects, and handle them from a lying position; little by little, they strengthen and develop the full range of muscles, coordination and balance needed for their next stage, be it crawling, sitting, standing or walking.


When they accomplish something new, they experience joy and satisfaction - we can witness this, too (oh goodness it is beautiful!) and share the moment with them! Whereas when we (unnecessarily) assist and intervene in their position or movement, we take away a tiny something from them, that’s rightfully theirs. It is so exciting to sit them up for the first time - I get that - or seeing them take their first wobbly step when we let go of their hands. But that’s THEIR achievement, to do in THEIR own time - what are we doing short-cutting that process? Why are we taking that away from them?


On a psychological level, what impact does it have on a child to communicate our trust in them, in their ability to learn, in their capacity to find a way? I come to this with a background of working in infant schools, where it sometimes seems that we have to carrot-and-stick children in every aspect of their learning, from daily behaviour to summative assessments. There’s discussion in education circles about the importance of nurturing a child’s sense of self-efficacy - the deep-seated feeling that what they choose to do makes a difference. How do we do that?


I suspect that what most people want for their children is not an early start in sitting, walking, jumping - all of which will come in their own time - but a foundation in self-awareness and self-confidence. Instead of “helping” and supporting each stage, we could express our trust and quiet delight in our child’s own competence.


Instead of hurrying or pre-empting their next development, we could be there to observe and deepen our awareness of our child. Maybe Pikler’s ideas around freedom in motor development are a tiny part in building the secure, self-confident base, which is a foundation for joyous learning and adventurous life.

Designated baby space at Pikler Conference, London