Most babies learn to sit up unsupported between four and
seven months. This physical milestone has a dramatic impact on their mental development,
according to a recent
study in Developmental Psychology.
By giving your baby ample opportunity to sit up, either alone or well supported
in an infant seat, you may be encouraging your little one to learn.
The study looked at how babies develop object individuation—the
ability to mentally separate out the distinct objects that make up a visual scene.
As adults, we take it for granted that a ball and the hand holding it are distinct
objects. But that’s something we had to learn early in life.
Once babies get the hang of object individuation, it opens
up a whole world of things for them to explore. A key step in the process is
learning to differentiate objects by pattern—for example, to be able to tell
the difference between a ball with spots and one with stripes.
In the study, researchers from North Dakota State University
and Texas A&M studied how five- and six-month-olds use patterns to
differentiate objects. At the start of the study, the babies didn’t spontaneously
use patterns this way. But the six-month-olds got the hang of it after having a
chance to look at, touch, and mouth balls with spots or stripes. If they
dropped or threw the ball out of reach, an experimenter retrieved it and handed
it back to them.
The five-month-olds didn’t catch on as readily. Researchers
suspected that was because the six-month-olds were better at sitting up. This
freed up their hands to reach for the balls, grasp them, touch them, and explore them with their mouths. Also, because the six-month-olds didn’t have to focus as
hard on staying upright, they could pay more attention to the objects at hand.
To test this theory, the researchers repeated the experiment
with four- and five-month-olds. None were sitting alone yet, but half were put in
infant seats that provided good support. This time, the five-month-olds
mastered using patterns to differentiate objects. The four-month-olds didn’t, however,
suggesting that their developing brains weren’t quite ready to make that
It may make little difference whether most babies learn to
differentiate a ball with spots from one with stripes at five months, six
months, or seven. But knowing what to look for so you can watch your baby’s developing
mind unfold is a joy for any parent.
Maximizing learning may be more important for a baby with significant
developmental delays. For example, the study suggests that a baby who is very
late to sit up may miss some learning opportunities. But giving the baby a chance to sit up in a sturdy infant seat and providing safe objects for the
baby to grab, hold, and mouth could go a long way toward making up for that.
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