The Developmental Derby

Photo of a baby and teddy bears wearing medals on an Olympic podium

By Carol Gray, LMT, CST, RPYT, ERYT-200

In 1975 I moved back to LA. My first husband and I had spent three years away while he fulfilled his military obligation. Army life was hard on me. We lived in officer’s housing on an Air Force base in an isolated desert location. My husband was a research engineer assigned to NASA. He never wore a uniform. I was a misfit among the officer’s wives in my neighborhood. I was glad to be done with it and so happy to be home. The first person I met in my new LA neighborhood was a woman named Susan. She had a two year old daughter. I had a two year old son.

My Time With Magda Gerber

Magda Gerber Susan became my link to other families who had compatible world views and children my son’s age. Most of them had met in an infant play group facilitated by Magda Gerber, the now-renowned (and sadly, deceased) expert on respectful infant care and development. In the 70‘s her ideas about treating infants with respect and trusting them to develop naturally – at their own pace – were revolutionary. Magda and pediatrician Tom Forrest founded Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) in 1978. The RIE mission has always been to improve the lives of infants and toddlers through respectful care.

As their children made their way into toddlerhood, Susan and the other parents founded a preschool called Our Own School. The school was based on Magda’s approach to children. Both of my children attended Our Own School. My younger son and I participated in an infant playgroup facilitated by Magda. Our Own School was a parent-run school. We hired teachers trained by Magda. We were fortunate to have her visit the school and make recommendations from time to time.

Respectful Caregiving

Mother and Baby Demonstrating Social Interaction and Respectful CaregivingRespectful caregiving is much of what Magda taught. We show respect by not picking up infants without telling them in advance. We show respect by speaking directly to infants and waiting for their response. This includes even the tiniest of newborns. We show respect by creating a safe space for infants and children to explore and learn. Everything within their reach should be safe for them and OK with us. We show respect for children’s abilities by giving them household responsibilities appropriate for their development. It may take more time to allow a toddler to help unload the dryer. That’s OK. We show respect for infants and children by telling them when we are leaving the room and when we will return. This is so deeply ingrained in me. I still catch myself saying to my husband, “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” We show respect for children by allowing them the opportunity to resolve their own conflicts. We only intervene when there is danger of violence. If one child hurts another, the first course of action is to acknowledge and empathize with the injured party, “That really hurt when Jody hit you.” We show respect by giving undivided attention to children when caregiving — and also just for fun. This modeling of respect helps children grow to be respectful adults.

Natural Motor Skill Acquisition

Photo of a Baby Moving From Seated to Hands and Knees to WalkingMagda Gerber taught me about natural motor skill acquisition. My oldest son was two when I met Magda. I wish I had met her sooner. Had I known about natural motor skill acquisition, I would not have used the infant seat, the Johnny Jump Up or the walker. I write more about “infant furniture” in Things We Do (After Birth) to Prevent Babies From Moving.

The Developmental Derby

Parents are excited and proud to have children who sit, stand and walk earlier than their peers. I call this The Developmental Derby. There is competition in families and among friends to be the parent of the baby who is the “best” at sitting or standing. This competition isn’t necessarily overt, but most parents have felt it. We especially admire the more upright developmental steps — standing and walking. Rolling is a little less glamorous. Parents like the idea of training, exercising or helping their children to accomplish these motor skill goals. Although, when we do this, we potentially cause harm to tiny bodies. We also deprive our children of their own process on their own timetable. This normal learning process includes frustration, trial and error, synthesis, learning from experience, integration of skills and pride of accomplishment.


Baby Rolling From Back to FrontIt’s interesting that certain milestones seem to be more important to parents than others. Independent rolling seems to be on the low-stakes end of the spectrum. I don’t notice parents putting much effort into “teaching” their babies to roll or boasting about how early they do it. It’s an important step, though. Differences in how and when babies attempt rolling reveal much about their development and abilities. The average age of independent rolling is somewhere between 3-7 months. Of course, the best way to help babies achieve this milestone is to leave them to their own devices. Dispense with the “infant furniture” and give them freedom to move.

For babies who are developing typically, rolling from back to front has a distinctive look. The babies begin on their backs. They flex their hips (bring both knees toward their shoulders). They may also tuck their chins. Next they roll to one side. The way they do this is to lengthen their lower leg as they bring the bent knee of the upper leg across the body toward the floor on the other side. The process of getting from their backs to their sides and eventually all the way over may take multiple attempts each time they try to do it during the learning phase. When they get all the way over they extend their spines (arch the back) as they lift their heads and bear their upper body weight on their arms or hands. Rolling from front to back, of course, looks entirely different. Babies usually do it later than back to front. Although it often happens accidentally at first due to weight-shifting while prone. A heavy baby head leads the way.

Years ago, parents brought their twins to an infant CST clinic associated with a class I was teaching. My teaching assistant treated one of the babies. Two days after the clinic the mother called me. She said that there was something wrong with her baby — the one my assistant had treated. This baby had been born with a lateral flexion pattern in his body — a C-curve. I write about twins, twists and curves in baby bodies here. The baby had received many chiropractic treatments since birth to successfully resolve this issue. Since the treatment in our clinic, the baby was curving his body in the old C-curve pattern. The mother said that he seemed  uncomfortable while doing it. It was most common for the baby to be moving in this way repeatedly at bedtime. My assistant was still in town so she and I offered to come to their home and provide some help.

When we arrived, the baby was awake on his back on the living room floor. The parents described what they had been observing with their baby. At one point the mother got onto the floor to show us what her baby had been doing. I told her that she had perfectly demonstrated a baby who was working on independent rolling from back to front. She nailed it.  As I walked into the kitchen to wash my hands I told her that her baby would be rolling from back to front very soon. He did it, on cue, while I was in the kitchen. Problem solved.


Photo of a baby crawling in the grassIt’s interesting that I seldom meet parents who are trying to “teach” their babies to crawl. Of course, encouraging babies to spend some time on their bellies would be the most important first step. Some parents resist this, in part, due to fear instilled by the Back to Sleep program. They wonder if it’s dangerous to place babies on their tummies even when they’re awake. Other reasons include the fact that babies who don’t spend time on their tummies are less likely to enjoy it. The parents of the tummy time haters haven’t been taught how to make this activity pleasurable for all involved. It is possible.

Normally-developing infants crawl on hands and knees somewhere between five and 10 months. Over the last 20 years, presumably due to the Back to Sleep program and the widespread use of “infant furniture”, babies who do not crawl before walking are increasingly common. Many people are now saying that it’s OK for babies to never crawl. Increasingly common isn’t necessarily normal, though. About 10% of otherwise typically-developing babies in the US never crawl. I discuss here why babies have fewer opportunities to move and develop the balance, strength and coordination they need to crawl. Babies who don’t crawl may also miss climbing — up steps or onto furniture. Climbing should happen before independent walking. It makes sense when you think about it. Climbing is vertical crawling.

This is Not Sitting

Photo of a man holding a seated baby on his abdomenMany parents seat their babies before the babies are able to get there on their own. They will report that their babies can “sit unassisted” for some self-defined period of time. This means you place the baby in a seated position and then let go. If the baby doesn’t immediately start to fall, they are “sitting”. I remember when my oldest son was little. His ability to sit in the baby seat part of a shopping cart was, to me, a major developmental milestone. I had to stuff my jacket around him for extra stability. I was super proud that he could do it. Ah, the lure of The Developmental Derby…

When we seat babies who can’t get there on their own, they usually sit with a rounded back and a posterior pelvic tilt. The effects of this posture are exacerbated by the frequent use of infant seats, car seats (for times other than car rides) and baby swings. They also place the baby in a rounded back/posterior pelvic tilt position. Together, all of this can contribute to a life of forward-slumping posture and back pain.


Photo of a man holding a baby in a standing position in his lapThis one is huge. I encounter many proud parents who want to show off the advanced strength of their two-month-old babies who can “stand” (when stood by adults). We really shouldn’t be standing babies until they can get there on their own. I have written about standing babies before they are ready and the effects on reflex integration here. When we stand babies we are loading their spines, hips, knees, ankles and feet before they are really ready. When babies are born, a significant portion of their bones — especially near the joints — are cartilage. They ossify (get more bony) over time. Babies know when the time is right — when they are bony enough to support their own weight. They also need sufficient muscle strength in their core and lower extremities to stand. Again, babies know when the time is right.

Remember, the only reason you have a brain is to move your body. Babies need to build their brains in the proper sequence. It’s important for them to master the steps on the way to standing and walking in the proper sequence — rolling, crawling, climbing, sitting and kneeling. Babies will naturally pull themselves up to standing from a kneeling position using heir arm strength at first. They do it while holding onto furniture. Getting down from standing is just as important as rising to stand. Babies learn this step by step. Over time, they accomplish standing (and getting back down) by shifting their weight and using their lower body strength. They are building that strength along the way.


Photo of an adult walking a babyThis one is the highest-stakes race in The Developmental Derby. When adults spontaneously (and proudly) tell me how old they were when they first walked, it almost always was at 9 months. The average age for independent walking in the US is 12 months. The typical range is 8.5 -20 months. People hardly ever volunteer that they walked at 13 months.

It is common for parents to “walk” their babies like the baby in the picture. I hope it’s obvious why this would be harmful to developing shoulder joints and why this isn’t actually walking.

Babies who can get themselves into a standing position on their own by pulling up on furniture, begin walking by cruising (sidestepping) while facing and holding onto furniture with both hands. Later, they learn to rotate their whole body to face the direction of movement. Next, babies will walk while holding furniture with one hand while they fully face the direction of movement. Last, it’s walking forward hands-free.

The Walking Baby

Photo of an adult walking a babyI’m an infant Craniosacral Therapist. At one point in my career I made mostly house calls to treat babies. I’ll never forget the eight month old walking baby. When I arrived at the house, the mother greeted me. She told me that her baby was sleeping upstairs. The mother and I sat downstairs while we got acquainted. I gathered a history and we discussed treatment goals.

This baby was helmeted for positional plagiocephaly (a flat spot on one side of the back of the head). She wore a helmet 23 hours a day, every day. I write about positional plagiocephaly and helmeting systems here. The mother told me that at eight months her baby had never spent time on her tummy because she hated it. She also told me that no one had ever mentioned or addressed her baby’s torticollis. Remember, you can’t have positional plagiocephaly without underlying torticollis. Her treatment goal for her baby was to help with head shape.

The mother said she was very proud that her baby had been walking for months. She said that her older sister’s three kids did all things earlier than her baby — except for walking. She and the baby’s father had been “walking” the baby many times a day, holding her hands like the baby in the picture. The mother mentioned that while her baby loved it, it was tiring for the adults.

We went upstairs where the baby was napping in the middle of her parent’s bed. The most unforgettable thing about this baby was how stuck her sacroiliac (SI) joints were. These joints are on either side of the the sacrum (the triangular bone at the lower end of the spine) and the pelvis. They didn’t move at all. With gentle touch I was able to release them. The baby immediately rolled to her belly and began to make belly crawling movements over my leg and into my lap. To me this was a huge success.

Four days later the very upset mother called me. She said that her baby had stopped walking right after the treatment. She had tried many times to get her baby to “walk”, but the baby steadfastly refused. She said her baby seemed to be uncomfortable or in pain when the parents tried to get her to walk. A phone call like this is on every infant bodyworker’s list of worst nightmare phone calls. I offered to come the next day at no charge to see what I could do. I said we would just consider it part of the first treatment. When I got there the mother was gone. I met the baby’s father, a lawyer. He and I rolled around on the floor with the baby for a while. The baby’s body felt good to me. The SI joints were still appropriately mobile. The baby had no signs of tenderness anywhere. What the baby did have was a huge drive to begin crawling. She was already, in just four days, moving about by belly crawling. I could see her starting to bring her knees under her hips. THIS WAS SO AMAZING. I explained to the dad that what the mother probably viewed as regression was actually wonderful progress. This child would now be able to continue with normal motor skill development.

Magda Gerber, RIE and The Tummy Time Controversy

Photo of a baby in tummy time - prone positionThere is controversy about tummy time among RIE-trained people. I’m a big fan of tummy time. Many RIE-trained people are opposed to structured tummy time. They say it interferes with natural motor skill acquisition. They believe that babies should be placed on their backs for play and that babies will naturally roll to their tummies when they are ready. I say it’s the adults who put the babies on the floor. We actually are the ones who decide which side is up — every time.

Tummy time is the antidote for the Back to Sleep program. We now insist that babies sleep on their backs, rather than allowing them a variety of sleep positions. Because of this, it makes sense to balance that rigidity with yet another intervention — tummy time. Placing babies on their backs for play makes more sense when infants are placed to sleep on their tummies — like all of ours were in the 70s. I don’t think Magda really cared which position we put our babies into as long as we weren’t sitting them or standing them before they could get into those positions on their own. Likewise, she felt that it was not a parent’s role to “teach” babies to roll, crawl, sit or walk.

Magda got her training from pediatrician Emmi Pikler who in 1947 founded Loczy, a famous orphanage in Budapest Hungary. Many of what are now RIE principles and techniques evolved in an environment where there were few caregivers for many children. The revolutionary things they developed ensured that all caregiving activities were respectful, connected times – about much more than diapering, bathing or feeding. This helped ensure more normal emotional, physical and social development for the children.

When I knew her in the 70s, Magda wasn’t very interested in breastfeeding or what has recently been called attachment parenting. That makes sense given her training. Loczy (the orphanage) had no way to test out the things we now associate with attachment or evolutionary parenting. The kids were orphans living in an institutional setting. I do know that she made a huge difference in the lives of the babies and children at Loczy. Magda left Hungary in 1957. She carried Emmi Pikler’s work to the US. Magda applied what she knew about maximizing infant/caregiver interactions in the institutional environment to the home environment.

In the late 70’s I did some writing and editing work for Magda. I really did know her well. I was at her house when she said, “Tom and I are going to call it Resources for Infant Educarers. What do you think of the name?” I lost touch with Magda when I moved to Oregon in 1981. I’ll never forget her. She changed my life. Magda had a profound influence on my own work with infants and children. After more than 45 years I can still hear her voice and remember the many things she taught me. Much of what I teach and model for parents has come directly from her.

The Developmental Derby is seductive. I really want you to know that my oldest son, in spite of his unusual toddler gait and the ever-present band-aid on his chin (surely the aftermath of his time in a walker and a Johnny Jump Up), was able to ride a two-wheeler without training wheels at 4 1/2 and ultimately became a competitive skier. Even though he hardly said a word until he was three, he has a BA in communications and a successful career in sales. Note the expression of pride on my face.

I’ll write about the Back to Sleep program soon. Stay tuned.

About Carol Gray

Carol Gray, MamaSpace Yoga Founder and OwnerCarol is the founder and owner of MamaSpace Yoga. She has been a therapeutic bodyworker in private practice for over 31 years. She specializes in Craniosacral Therapy for pregnant and postpartum people and infants. Carol has spent years developing hands-on techniques to enhance the mobility in pregnant bodies including the bony pelvis, the abdominal organs, the support structures and lower segment of the uterus. She is  proud to have pioneered the integration of this gentle manual therapy into prenatal care, the birth place and postpartum care for birthing parents and babies. The goal is to give babies more room to develop, grow and get born. Her specially-designed yoga classes have grown naturally from the roots of bodywork and yoga.

Carol has dedicated her professional life to supporting expectant and new families by promoting gentle aware birth. She attended births for over 35 years – at first as a doula and from 2000 to 2012 as a midwife. She has since retired from attending births in order to focus on practicing and teaching CST and prenatal yoga. Her many years as a birth worker have forever changed her and her worldview. Those experiences remain an integral part of who she is as a therapist and teacher.

Carol is the founder and director of the The Carol Gray Center for CST Studies®. She teaches high-quality, small group classes that are appropriate for bodyworkers, birth attendants and other health professionals. She is approved by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) as a continuing education approved provider.