It’s something we do automatically. It’s how we know where the floor is; or gauge how much to move our legs when going up and down stairs. If we didn’t have a chance as infants, or we have other challenges with balance, it’s part of why we feel clumsy or uncertain about our movements.
This mysterious activity? Measuring. Babies are masters!
When babies learn to move, they begin lying on the floor. Over time, development brings them up off the floor, from lifting head and chest to crawling to walking. Pushing off the earth comes before, and leads into, being able to reach into space. That is, measuring comes before, and leads into, freedom of movement and innate trust in our own movement abilities.
So what is measuring?
This brilliant design of the human nervous system gives infants a chance to “measure”—to experience their distance from the floor. It allows their brains to read gravity and know where they are in space.
Imagine this. You (your adult self) have been picked up by someone strong and set on your feet on a 5-inch-wide wall several feet above the ground. (And you happen not to be a gymnast or tight-rope walker.) What do you do? How do you feel? What happens to your breathing? Is this familiar? What’s your sense of heights and distance from the ground? Did you want to be put up here? Would you have been able to get here on your own? How will you get down? Do you know yourself and your abilities right this moment?
Imagine this. Perhaps you’re hiking and you have come upon this stone wall. You’re curious. You touch it, lean on it, and want to get on top of it to see the view or to get to the other side. You have desire, intention, motivation. You make attempts at climbing it, try a few things, discover what works, and make it to the top. How do you feel? What are you thinking about, or not? What’s your sense of heights and distance from the ground? How well do you know yourself and your abilities right this moment?
In the second scenario, you measured. YOU experienced the journey from the ground to the top of the wall. You know where you are in space. You got there yourself, and you’re likely to be able to get yourself off of it.
In the first scenario, you had no opportunity to measure. You were dependent on someone else to get you up there, and because you didn’t experience how to get up, you may also be dependent on someone else to get you down. You weren’t given a chance to know your own ability; rather, someone more powerful has done something to you. While it may be thrilling, you may also be apprehensive.
Watching your amazing baby: How do babies measure?
- The nose-bob or nose-to-mouth. At the breast or on her tummy, you may see Baby bobbing her nose, then latching on with her mouth. If she’s holding something, you may see her bring it to her nose, then slide it down to her mouth. This is one form of measuring or orienting—setting herself up to know where something is and where she is and how to make the two meet.
- From tummy, lifting head and pushing up on hands. Get on the floor with Baby and try it yourself too! Lying on the floor > pushing up > down to the floor > pushing up. Clock some time doing that, and you understand how to “be” at that distance off the floor. You know where you are in space.
- Baby spots a toy and either pushes backwards on belly or belly-crawls forward. She has spotted what she wants and sets up her movement to attempt to get it. She gets feedback from the outcome—did her actions get her what she wanted? Please don’t move the toy, as she won’t get correct feedback about measuring what she had set herself up to do.
- From sidelying, watch Baby push with her hands into sitting. Try this one too. Here I am lying on the floor; and feeling each moment of the journey up to sitting; back down, back up; measure, measure; ah, now my proprioceptive system (inner ear) knows where I am in space, and I know how to get back down.
- Pulling up to standing—it’s all about measuring! Up, down, up, down. Reading distances, feeling gravity, knowing her own ability. “Down” may be falling or plopping at first, but she’s not afraid because she got herself up there. Her brain is reading this distance and what she needs to do to move within it.
The truth about propping
When we prop babies in sitting, standing, and walking before they are able to get into it and out of it by themselves, they don’t get this experience of knowing themselves and measuring. They become dependent on us to get them up higher and to get them down again. We put them into the situation of the first scenario above.
In a society so focused on achievement, allowing Baby her full time and space necessary to discover movement on her own takes trust! But we are designed to be able to do the next thing when we are ready.
Sometimes there are stressors that prevent babies from finding milestones. But in general, each milestone will happen by itself once all (ALL) previous and necessary preparations are in place.
It’s a common myth that we need to teach sitting, standing, and walking. Baby will benefit the most from finding these on her own. It’s also a myth that babies learn it by practicing it. She’ll learn because she did all the preparations and ends up in the new milestone.
Remember that Baby is a master at measuring and knowing her own abilities, and you can point this out to all the people who come along and say “your baby isn’t sitting yet?????”!
Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator®, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and Spiritual Counselor. She also uses Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting.
© Eliza Parker 2012, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my post in your blog or materials, please ask permission.)