W-sitting. Friend or foe?
In anticipation of raised eyebrows I’m going to come right out and say it. W-sitting is a normal, healthy sitting position that should not be discouraged in typically developing children.
Let me explain.
Firstly and importantly, variability is an asset. Being able to move and position yourself in endless, unpracticed ways as you explore your world is exactly what we look for as a sign of normal motor development. When we put limits on what we are comfortable accepting - for example, a certain sitting position - we automatically stunt the possibilities of that exploration.
At around eight months of age, babies are developing the muscle control around their trunk, pelvis and hips that enables them to move their legs into different positions when they are sitting. For those of you fond of a sweet visual, can you imagine your baby curling their toes as they test the boundaries of their balance? Who knew working hard could look so cute?
Over time, baby’s become less reliant on their legs for balance. They do fancy things like turn their trunk over their bent leg, and propel forward toward interesting things. They may turn one leg inward so that both knees come to the side into side-sitting. And through side-sitting they may start to transition into four-point kneeling as a gateway to crawling.
Sitting takes different shapes - ring sitting (both legs bent), long sitting (both legs out straight), side sitting (knees to the side), W-sitting (knees together, feet out), or various combinations of these in any given moment. Or it may simply be an intermediary to other positions, all the while clutching that favourite toy.
The common thread in all of these sitting positions is that they are dynamic and fluid. Babies are constantly moving, adjusting, re-adjusting and moving some more in the pursuit of play. And different situations call for different sitting positions. There may even be some trade-offs. For example, there is a battle of sorts between cognition and action when your baby’s attention is taxed. In other words, if they have to concentrate really hard on working out a toy, they need to compromise how much energy they put into their physical position.
And how do you put less energy into a physical position? You make it more stable. How? By spreading yourself across as much of the ground as you can. Babies and children who have a tendency to W-sit are usually doing so because they have softer muscles and joints. They are looking for a point of stability so they can use their attention doing ‘other stuff’ with their brain. Is that bad? Or is that clever?
So what about the stress W-sitting places on your hips and knees? Granted, knee pain may be a problem for older children who sit for uncomfortably long periods in one position. Who hasn’t experienced the pins and needles wake-up call?! If W-sitting doesn’t self-limit - that means they stop themselves if it starts to hurt - then sure, encourage an alternative. This will require creativity on your part to avoid an escalating, butting-heads scenario (hello reverse psychology). In this instance, I invite you to make it about the activity and not the sitting position.
Alternatively, work with them. Give them something to sit on for those times they choose or need to be on the floor for play. As an avid Iyengar yoga student and teacher I am confident that Virasana (aka Hero pose, or perhaps grown-up W-sitting) can be a safe position for the hips and knees. Ironically, most adults have lost this ability when they turn up to beginners yoga class. If you raise your hips above your knees (sit on a block or cushion or even your heels) your weight falls more to the top of your shin bones, and you vastly reduce the torsional pressure on your knees. You can even learn to strengthen the hip muscles in this position (true story).
Lastly, for a healthy dose of perspective - there are certainly some children out there who would be better off reducing their exposure to W-sitting. For example, if your baby or child has a diagnosed neurodevelopment or musculoskeletal problem, your physiotherapist may advise you on some alternatives. Or if your baby seems ‘stuck’ - meaning that they can’t transition in and out of the position by themselves - then there is merit in not making W-sitting a habit at the expense of more fluid alternatives. But in working with all individuals, let’s not forget that hips and knees actually like bending.
For movements sake.
Dr Suzanne Long is available for appointments at the baby.physio clinic in Clifton Hill, Melbourne