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 (click here if you wanna learn more about this). 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 and support that actually help your baby advance in eating skills, stay in the high chair for longer, remain comfortable, and enjoy the process so much more.
But most parents are confused by what this actually means. Does this mean they have to be sitting upright 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…
- Baby’s able to hold their head up straight and steady without tiring themselves
- Baby’s able to sit at a right angle where their bum and pelvis are positioned directly under their hips
- Baby can hold their torso upright and their airway is unrestricted
- Baby’s shoulders are positioned just slightly in front of the hips
- Baby’s arms are unrestricted and free to move
- Baby can lean forward, and turn slightly to the left or right without major restriction
- Baby’s feet are supported with a foot rest
Alright, now let’s break down the reasons for all this.
Independent head and neck control
First off, does baby have the ability to hold their head up nice and still independently, or do you have to support them? If you have to support them at all, your baby is definitely not ready to start sitting in a high chair. The ability for good head and neck control is a critical sign that indicates your baby can safely eat without running a high risk of choking on their food. It’s important that your baby can hold their head steady and be able to sit upright with good trunk stability!
This gross motor skill of holding their 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!”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 your 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.
Stages of development:
Proper alignment and core strength
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 your baby’s airway is open as well. Therefore, 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 booster seat for your baby at meal times (or for “helping” your child sit). Why? Because when your baby sits 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 their torso (hello choking risk and regurgitation of food!), and constricts movements of their hands and body.
Unrestricted arm movement
Speaking of restricting movement…when your baby sits, we want their 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) most babies can use their body language to communicate and tell us if they want more (they’ll lean in for a bite), if they are full, bored, tired or don’t like it (they will turn away). These are key communication strategies that are all part of allowing your 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 in their high chairs. This can either be a built-in high chair foot rest, or you can set up 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 having to concentrate on learning a new task, like eating.
A few tips for 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’re in a reclining seat, they’re 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 you had to do an ab crunch every time you wanted to lean forward and grab a piece of food!
If you find that even when they’re fully sitting upright, your baby still looks like they aren’t sitting in 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. It would be way too 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 your baby going to last in the highchair for a full meal if that’s how they’re positioned.
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. Ensure that your baby’s high chair tray is positioned about halfway between their belly button and the breast
Putting the tray halfway between your baby’s belly button and breast will ensure that they can rest their elbows comfortably on the tray, which will allow them to reach for things easily.
To sum it all up, knowing when it’s safe for your baby to sit in a high chair really depends on their readiness to do so. Remember that this process can only be done when they’re developmentally ready, so don’t rush it! And make sure that when they do start using a high chair, they’re sitting in a 90 degree hip to torso position, and never on an angle (be it leaning forward or reclining backwards).
If you found the tips I gave here helpful, make sure to DM us on Instagram about it, or email your questions and feedback so we can answer them and help you out! And if you’re 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!