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Ryan Johnson, Published December 26 2012

NDSU study suggests sitting up a vital part of babies’ learning

FARGO – The act of sitting up is one of many milestones parents notice as their infant grows. But recently published research suggests the act could be even more significant than previously thought.

A study from North Dakota State University assistant professor Rebecca Woods suggests sitting up fully supported plays a vital role in the rate of learning in infants.

Woods, who started the research in 2005 while in graduate school at Texas A&M, looked at the influence of motor development on cognitive growth. At the time, she said, there were very few published studies on the topic.

Woods tested about 120 babies in the final study, dividing them into two groups: infants who could sit up on their own or who were placed in supportive Bumbo seats; and babies unable to sit by themselves who were given minimal support by a parent.

Her research confirmed that babies who had full support while sitting up, either on their own or in the seats, didn’t have to devote their attention to balancing – meaning they could better grasp, mouth and look at balls with different patterns and learn to distinguish between the two than infants who were simply propped up on a parent’s lap.

“A lot of what is going on with infants is their ability to explore objects,” she said. “Their ability to manipulate objects and look at them effectively is different when they’re sitting up compared to when they’re laying down or laying back, so part of it is just more effective exploration skills.”

Woods said the focus of the study was to get a better sense of how babies learn, and she cautioned that she didn’t compare sitting up to fully lying down. More research is needed, she said, but the study and other recent related findings are beginning to paint a picture of just how important sitting up may be.

She said other published studies suggest adults also learn better while sitting up, and the simple act of sitting rather than lying eventually could become a tool to help babies who are developmentally delayed catch up with their peers.

Woods’ upcoming research project is what she calls a “baby cam study” that will use hat-mounted miniature cameras to see if babies born in the winter learn differently than babies born in the summer because they spend their earliest months indoors.

She’s also worked on research that found 9-month-old babies are good at investigating objects around them, but they learn more and remember differences better when there’s social interaction, such as a parent helping them play with a toy.

Even if more work is needed to fully understand her sitting up study’s findings and how those findings could apply to infant learning, Woods said the idea that babies learn better while sitting up already offers a couple of ideas for parents and the people who interact with young children.

“They’re learning a lot when they play with objects,” she said. “If the goal is to get them that experience, then propping them up like this before they can actually sit up on their own is going to give them that experience.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587