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Baby Steps: Stand and Deliver

Q  My daughter, Anabel, is 6 months old. I try to make her stand with my help, but she won't put any pressure on her legs. She just drops down on her bottom. When she was 2 or 3 months old, I thought she held herself up more than she does now. Should I be worried, or is she just lazy?

A You should not be worried and your daughter is not lazy. When she is ready to stand on her own, she will start to pull herself up, or will take your hands and hold herself up. Her muscles are not yet ready to support her weight and all your coaxing will mean nothing before then. In fact, your efforts may backfire because she is more likely to take a bad fall if she's standing before she is really ready, and such a fall could make her unwilling to try standing again for a while.

The reason it seems like Anabel held herself up more in her early months is because of something called the stepping reflex. Until about 3 months of age, babies reflexively make stepping movements with their legs when you hold them up. These movements do not directly relate to walking, although the muscles used are the same ones used in walking.

Perhaps you feel like Anabel ought to be standing because you see other babies her size doing it, but you must remember that each baby develops at her own rate. And even that rate varies, so that for one month it may seem like your baby is standing still developmentally while in the next month she may be passing milestones faster than you can record them. The point is that you have to fight the urge to compare your baby with others, because such comparisons aren't fair to either of you.

It is difficult, however, to know when and how much to challenge your baby and when to let nature take its course. The best trick is to let your baby be your guide. You can offer to help her do things that are ever-so-slightly more difficult than what she is doing now (at 6 months, that might be activities related to sitting and reaching), but if she balks, try something different. Developmental psychologists call this type of parental behavior "scaffolding," because it provides just the amount of support to allow a child to reach to another level in her activities. The key, however, is that the child has to be ready to make the step to the next developmental level. If she is not ready, your efforts will be fruitless, at best, and, at worst, frustrating for her.

In general, babies' reluctance to approach and pass a developmental milestone is based in real limitations, not unwillingness or laziness. Babies have an innate drive to achieve all sorts of skills, and if they don't try, it is because they don't have the equipment yet (such as the muscles, the coordination, or the cognitive ability) or because they are frightened. Some babies are less active than their peers, and others may be cautious, which may result in later achievement of certain motor milestones, but that does not mean that they are lazy or delayed, or that they won't eventually reach the same destination as babies with different temperaments.