Sitting up has always been viewed as a milestone of physical development in babies. But new research suggests that this skill also can impact their cognitive development.
That's because babies who can support themselves without using their hands are free to learn about objects in multisensory ways by reaching, grasping and manipulating them, according to the study by researchers at North Dakota State and Texas A&M universities.
"If babies don't have to focus on balancing, their attention can be on exploring the object," said study co-author Rebecca J. Woods, an assistant professor of human development and family science and a doctoral psychology lecturer at North Dakota.
In fact, babies as young as 5½ months who can't yet sit up on their own—but can do so with support, such as using a car seat—can learn just as well as those who support themselves, researchers found. The study was published in October in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Researchers discovered the importance of sitting up to learning through several experiments involving babies ages 4-and-a-half months to 6½ months. (The study abstract didn't specify how many babies were tested.) They found that the 5½- and 6½-month-old babies don't use patterns to differentiate objects on their own. But the older babies could "be primed to use patterns, if they have the opportunity to look at, touch, and mouth the objects before being tested," according to a news release from North Dakota State University.
"An important part of human cognitive development is the ability to understand whether an object in view is the same or different from an object seen earlier," Woods said.
The advantage attributed to having hands free to touch objects didn't extend to the study's youngest subjects, suggesting that 5½ months was the earliest age that sitting unsupported would provide a benefit to learning, the study says.