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Sitting independently is a very important developmental sign of readiness for starting solids! Here are some tips and fun activities from an occupational therapist to help teach your baby to sit up.

Let’s talk about what it takes to actually sit in a highchair! There are a million little skills your baby will need before they are ready to actually sit in that high chair. 

Sitting to eat is actually quite a complex skill. It involves co-contraction of abdominal muscles that need to be anchored to strong hips and supported feet all while having to attend to food on a tray. That’s all before any food is even in the mouth! No wonder it’s going to be messy and take about a zillion and one trial and error moments. 

In the 5-6 months leading up to eating foods for typically developing babies, there are many opportunities to work on all these little skills your baby will need to sit and eat!

For this post, I’ve invited Cortney Flores, an occupational therapist and a mom of 3 to share her expert knowledge in helping your baby gain the strength and confidence to master this important skill!

And here she is!

Top tips for strengthening baby’s core

Here are some of my best tips for core strengthening (and the ever important tummy time) focusing on having fun with your precious baby and not stressing yourself out trying to do everything “correctly.” I hope these help you enjoy your baby and not stress about development. 

Going roughly in order from younger to older. Here are my favorite tips!

Tip 1

Try putting interesting things on their feet to promote feet to hands/mouth play

Why: It’s not hard to see how your baby doing the adult equivalent to reverse crunches would give them some serious core muscles they will need for sitting down the road. All this work of bringing their legs up is not only good strengthening for their core but also their hips. 

How: For me, my favorite thing was to use adult socks that seemed to always be around from the laundry not getting magically put away. You could also try the rings parents use to attach toys to the car seat or any of the million stuffed animal toys that come with a velcro strap. Just anything they can potentially engage with and grab.

baby lying down on a blanket grabbing feet with his hands
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The crazier the better in my book!  As the parent, your job is to provide the interesting thing they can’t help but want to grab. Then, demonstrate the skill you are shooting for by physically bringing their feet up to their hands while singing another equally silly song.

Then when your baby actually has that light bulb moment of “finding their feet” they will do a million and one lower abdominal strengthening exercises all while desperately trying to get that toy into their mouth. 

baby in a dinosaur zip up laying down with feet raised

This was the outfit that my son “found his feet” in. For me as an OT and a mom it was a light bulb moment because I realized how hard he was working to try to figure out what those little white things were hanging off his feet! I think it was a dragon or dinosaur outfit with little dragon toes on it. Who needs fancy baby gadgets when you can just use a creative Carter’s outfit!

Tip 2

Try lots of different positions for tummy time 

Why: Any parent who has been around for more than half a second has heard that tummy time is important. Let me be another person to say- it’s important. Tummy time is crucial for not only upper extremity and core development, it is very important to get your baby off from laying on the back of their head to prevent flat spots (plagiocephaly).

From their tummy is usually where babies learn how to roll from tummy to back mostly because their huge head pulls them over. Tummy time also provides them the opportunity to play with toys in their hands and mouth. Exploring with their hands and then their mouth sets them up for self feeding and tolerating all sorts of textures

How: In case no one has told you TUMMY TIME DOES NOT HAVE TO BE TORTURE ON THE FLOOR! In fact it probably shouldn’t be because your baby probably won’t be a big fan of it which makes you as the parent really not a fan of it. There are many many many different ways to achieve the same goal of core, back, head and neck strengthening that tummy time is trying to achieve. 

Try tummy time over a boppy or a towel rolled up where their chest is supported and they have a little room to work to get their head up.

baby doing tummy time on boppy pillow

If you have an exercise ball in your house, put your baby on top of the ball and roll it back and forth. This provides lots of sensory stimulation and your baby will probably want to look up and see what in the world is going on.  Parents get extra style points for putting a mirror in front of baby so you can see your baby and therefore make silly faces for them to look at. 

baby over mom's knees facing away from mom

When you are sitting trying to eat a few bites of cold dinner or drink room temperature coffee, try putting your baby over your knees face down. They will probably find the crumbs on the floor interesting to look at and it gives them the opportunity to work those back and neck muscles. Your baby will get added points for difficulty if you bounce them a tiny bit. 

And then when all else fails and you have to hold your baby with one hand to try to make dinner,  just try holding them facing outwards for as long as your bicep can tolerate. This still makes them work to hold their head up using their back and neck muscles against gravity all while giving them interesting new things to look at from what seems like high up in the sky to them.  

baby on his tummy outside

My super insider trick for tummy time is to do it outside on a blanket whenever possible. Babies LOVE the outside fresh air! And being able to do a challenging task in a calming and different environment will make all the difference. I promise!

I wouldn’t be a good OT without giving you a goal. Shoot for at least 3 times a day for however long your baby can tolerate it. In the beginning, it will only be a few seconds, but as they get older it will be a few minutes. And then one day you will realize they have been on their tummy for 10-15 minutes without hollering. That’s when they figure out how to roll and then the real fun begins- a mobile baby!

Tip 3

Try using a laundry basket or putting your baby in the corner of the couch to provide support sitting.

Why: The basket provides a little support for them to be able to test out their righting reflexes while physically preventing them from encountering the full effect of gravity, i.e. falling over. The couch provides similar support but you as the parent need to be a little closer so they don’t completely fall off the couch! 

How: When your baby is working on sitting balance but still not trustworthy to not fall over, try placing them in a laundry basket! I know it sounds unconventional but who else does not need another baby gadget. ME!

The laundry basket provides you the opportunity to provide more or less support. To provide more support in the laundry basket, stuff some pillows around them. To provide less support leave the pillows out and put lots of toys in there where the most fun thing to do will be to throw them out of the basket. But at least it will keep them busy!

Obviously please make sure the basket itself is not going to tip over. It will probably need to be wedged between something. I figured this out the hard way so let me spare you the crying. This is how my son watched me make many meals. I basically threw as many toys as would fit in the basket without burying him, and he would spend the next 10 minutes taking all the toys out while I made dinner. Then we would repeat the whole process until dinner was ready. 

baby inside a laundry basket with toys

This picture was before I learned the basket needed to be wedged… 🙂

baby sitting in the corner of the couch

If you are sitting on the couch trying to scroll instagram or catch up on your favorite show, try propping your baby up in the corner of the couch. But stay very close! This gives you your 2 hands back while allowing your baby to sit with a little support. 

Tip 4

Use the boppy to help provide a little safety to sitting practice. 

Why: Providing a challenge is where your baby will learn to test their boundaries while still trying to stay upright. If they do fall over then they realize, oh wait, I have to do things differently next time if I want to actually reach that toy. Eventually they figure out how to use those core and hip muscles to maintain sitting balance which is the WHOLE GOAL for sitting to eat!

How: Put the boppy that you now have a love/hate relationship with (or a pillow or a couch cushion or wherever is within reach) behind your baby so that if they do fall over they have a little cushion. Providing a space where they can work on sitting balance while still being allowed to safely fall over, gives them ample opportunity to work on those righting reflexes and to realize gravity is a real thing.

Added points for difficulty when you place toys just out of reach in front of them or to either side to where they might have to put one hand down and then reach with the other one. Oh the challenge!! Sometimes for the sake of sanity, I put a bunch of toys in his lap and let him pick his favorite. 

baby sitting up with boppy pillow behind and a bunch of toys in front to play with

Tip 5

Harness the power of the fridge! Albeit in a different way!

sticky toys on refrigerator on the left picture and various toys with rings attached to the refrigerator handle on the right

Why: Providing the opportunity for your baby to play at a vertical surface encourages more of an upright posture as well as using their arms to reach for items. This strengthens their arms and upper back muscles needed for sitting balance and self feeding.

This is definitely the most challenging of activities I have suggested so proceed with low expectations. To start put toys easily within reach and then as they get better, you can spread out the toys.  It obviously doesn’t need to be the fridge, any vertical surface will work!

How: Hang toys off the refrigerator (or dishwasher or shower door or whatever is super sturdy) handles to provide the opportunity for your baby to grab at toys from a vertical surface.

So if you have made it this far congratulations! This non-blogger just tried to write a blog post so raise your glass to trying new things! I hope you can try something new today as well!

More than anything, please find the joy and fun that is raising a tiny human to be a hopefully kind and generous person in this crazy world. Let’s keep our eyes on the big picture always and enjoy these fleeting moments with our little ones!

headshot picture of Cortney, an occupational therapist

I am Cortney Flores, wife to my husband Jaret who is basically the opposite of me in every possible way, but isn’t that what always happens?! We are midwest transplants currently living on the east coast  and have been married 11 years going on forever. We have 2 wild and crazy boys ages 2 and almost 5 with a THIRD BOY on the way! I live in the in-between world of being so thrilled and excited to be home with our boys but also desperately wanting to use my OT brain to do more than change diapers and feed my boys 168023 meals and snacks per day. So until these boys figure out how to function without calling my name every 30 seconds, I will share a little of what I have learned being a mom and an OT.  Hope you find my insights helpful and worthwhile in your own pursuit to not have your name called every 30 seconds. (And then we will probably be sad they aren’t calling for us! But isn’t that the struggle of parenthood?)

About Min

Thank you so much for stopping by! I am Min, a Registered Dietitian, a Christ follower, a wife, and a mom to our two miracle babies! Currently, I’m having a ton of fun feeding their tummies and sharing our baby led weaning journey! Follow me on Instagram if interested in seeing daily menu as well as tips and tricks.

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