One of the readiness signs for starting solids is that your baby can sit up independently. This usually happens right around 6 months of age, but can be different for every baby. In my opinion, it’s probably THE most important sign of readiness, mainly because it’s the biggest indication that they can eat safely without a high risk of choking. While safety is always number one priority, being able to sit up independently also means that feeding will be more successful. In fact, there are certain things that can be done with regards to positioning that actually help baby advance in eating skills, stay in the high chair for longer, remain comfortable and enjoy the process so much more.
But a lot of parents are confused by what this actually means. Does this mean they have to be sitting up for a certain period of time? Should I set a timer to see how long? How “independent” are we talking here (aka. can I support them in any way)? What if they topple over after a couple minutes?
These are all very valid questions.
Let’s start by explaining what a proper sitting position is and why this is important.
A proper sitting position means that your baby is:
- Able to hold their head up straight and steady without tiring
- Sitting at a right angle (bum and pelvis are positioned directly under the hips)
- Torso is upright and airway is unrestricted
- The shoulders are positioned just slightly in front of the hips
- Arms are unrestricted and free to move
- They can lean forward, and turn to slightly to the left or right without major restriction
- Their feet are supported with a foot rest
Alright, now let’s break down the reasons for all this.
First off, your baby needs to be able to hold their head steady and be able to sit upright with good trunk stability. This gross motor skill of holding head, neck and torso up steadily is needed in order for your baby to be able to practice their fine motor skills (like chewing, picking up objects, scooping with a spoon etc.). Without it, it would be very difficult! Think about if you were to slouch back in a chair and have your head hanging over to one side or down low. It would be near impossible to eat properly – let alone learn how to do it for the first time! As my good friend and speech language pathologist Catherine at ChiKids Feeding says, “Stability at the hips = success at the lips!”. As she explains in my baby led feeding online course, independent movement of the jaw, lips and tongue (which is absolutely key to being able to learn how to chew and move food around in the mouth) only happens when baby develops the strength to hold their head and neck and torso up first. It’s a sequential developmental process so waiting for one to happen in order for the other to happen is necessary.
In addition to actually being successful at eating, having the head align over the shoulders and having the core strength to keep the torso upright and open means baby’s airway is open as well and food can be easily directed down the right pipe (esophagus) rather than the wrong one (airway)…thereby reducing the risk of choking!
This is why I would never recommend using a Bumbo chair to feed your baby (or for “helping” your child sit). In a Bumbo chair, just take a look at your child’s posture and how their head, neck, trunk and pelvis are aligned. Notice how their bum is positioned below and behind the hips, which compresses the torso (hello choking risk and regurgitation of food) and constricts movements of the hands and body.
Speaking of restricting movement…we want our baby’s arms to be unrestricted and for them to be able to lean forward, as well as for them to be able to angle their body ever so slightly to the left and to the right without feeling struggle or strain. This allows a few things to happen: 1) leaning forward and having good range of motion with their arms actually makes grabbing pieces of food easy for self-feeding and 2) babies can use their body language to communicate and tell us if they want more (they will lean in for a bite) or are full, bored, tired or don’t like it (they will turn away). These are key communication strategies that are all part of allowing baby to be an active participant in feeding (and allows us to be responsive to their needs).
Finally, babies should have their feet supported by some type of foot rest when eating. This can either be a built-in high chair foot rest, or you can create your own using a cut pool noodle (see here) or by attaching a tea towel across the bottom (like this one here). Babies eat so much better and are way more comfortable when they have something grounding them to help provide them with that core stability. Think about if you were to eat off a really tall bar stool. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a fine motor activity (like eating) if your feet were just dangling with no support, and it would certainly be harder to maintain good posture and core strength without something to place your feet on. Ever notice how you automatically wrap your feet around the pole or on a bar to provide stability and comfort? Babies and toddlers are the same. Without a footrest, it requires so much more focus to just sit up – let alone have to concentrate on learning a new task like eating.
A few tips to making sure this all happens:
1. Make sure the back of the highchair is set to a fully upright position. NEVER FEED YOUR BABY IN A RECLINING POSITION (even if your highchair has this ability). If they are in a reclining position, they are at an increased risk of having a piece of food get stuck in their airway and cause choking. It’s also not very comfortable. Imagine if baby had to do an ab crunch every time they wanted to lean forward and grab a piece of food!
If you find that even in a fully upright position, your baby still looks like they aren’t sitting a 90 degree hip to torso position (a.k.a. they have to do a little ab crunch every time they want to lean forward), just place a folded towel between the back of their shoulders and the highchair back to keep them forward a bit. That would be way to uncomfortable and tiring to have to use all that ab power every time they wanted to lean over and grab a piece of food. No way is that baby going to last for a full meal.
2. You can also use a rolled up towel to wrap around baby’s hips to support them and prevent them from toppling over, especially if they do get tired after a few minutes of completely independent sitting. Helping them sit with assists like this to help them last through the entire meal is totally fine as long as they still have free range of motion.
3. Finally, ensure that your baby’s high chair tray is positioned about halfway between their belly button and the breast. This will ensure they can rest their elbows comfortably on the tray and can reach for things easily.
Looking for more advice on how to feed your baby the baby-led way? Take the Baby Led Feeding online course to walk you through everything you need to know, step-by-step!