From Peaceful Babies—Contented Mothers by Dr. Emmi Pikler

Translated from original Hungarian Mit tud már a baba? into German, and from the German Friedliche Babys - zufriedene Mütter into English by Julie Le Gal Brodeur*

Copyright © Verlag Herder Freiburg in Breisgau 1982

Copyright © Emmi Pikler 1982


Children, especially city children, generally move badly and inadequately. They cannot sit, stand or walk properly, not to mention more complex movements. This is, naturally, not obvious to every reader.

I hear puzzled questions: "Why?" – "Children do so move!" – "My little daughter could already sit at four months!" – "Mine was already standing at six months!" – "My son wasn't even one when he started walking!" etc.

The children sit, stand, walk, and move – that's true. But how? Oddly, ungracefully, awkwardly, stiffly and most importantly, not efficiently. They quickly become tired. They fall often and clumsily. They quite frequently really hurt themselves. They sit, stand, walk etc. just barely, somehow. If we really observe in the streets, in playgrounds, in kindergartens, schools, when we remember babies and toddlers we know, we arrive at this saddening reality.

As a matter of fact, in this respect, things don't look much better with adults. We consider it natural that after two hours of walking we "can't go another step", that after a few hours of sitting we find it hard to move our stiffened limbs, etc. But this is, by far, not natural. By sitting properly, one will not get tired from sitting, by standing properly, one is able to stand much longer than we can imagine without getting tired. [...]

Or let us look at animals. They move simply, naturally, harmoniously. The deer, the cat, the monkey, as much as the buffalo or the elephant. The biggest, slowest, most sluggish animal is also capable of very quick, abrupt movements without needing to be "athletic", and without "getting out of shape". [...]

Why is it that this natural, quiet certainty, the natural simplicity and efficiency of the posture and movements of our children often completely diverges form this? Does it have to be like this?


The wish that our children might move beautifully and harmoniously is in no way an unattainable, distant dream. Moving properly is an inborn ability not only in animals, but also in humans [...]. If we give children enough space and possibilities for free movement, they will move as beautifully and gracefully as animals: nimbly, simply, confidently and naturally. [..]

We should spare our children these unfavourable characteristics in their movement development. What can we do? Should we do exercises with our infants? Should we show him the right way to move? What methods have been successful?


That is, the question isn't how one should "teach" the infant to move properly and well with some kind of artificially constructed, resourceful, well-thought-out methods, with exercises and gymnastics. This is more a question of simply giving the infant, that is not taking away from him, the possibility of moving his limbs appropriately.

Next I would like to sketch the natural sequence of motor development in the infant. This covers the first two years of the child, as this is when they learn the fundamental elements of movement. In this span of time, the unskilled newborn that is only able to kick, becomes a child that moves with purpose, able to grasp, stand, sit, and walk.

How does this happen?

The child is born. Lies on his back.

(These days, in many different countries, one also lays newborns on their bellies. Needless to say, they have no opportunity to practice the following movement descriptions – those the infant on his back achieves, before he has the impulse to turn on has belly.)

The newborn lies on his back with bent arms and legs, closed fists, usually with a slightly sideways curved torso and spine, the head slightly turned sideways. His body, his position is a little asymmetrical.

Often, one side is developed differently than the other, one is a little longer, the other shorter. The newborn usually turns his head to the same side. In the course of the first three months, the newborn on his back kicks his legs and waves his arms more and more. His movements are erratic, and choppy, and all limbs seem to move at the same time and seem to participate in all movements in the same manner. These movements are not purposeful; they are simply part of good moods or crying.

Turns his head

The way of moving changes when through the day, the infant begins to follow objects that interest him with his eyes and with the turning of the head. At this point, the head begins to turn in the un-practiced direction. The rash, disorganized movements of the hands also changes when the infant begins to pay attention to the movement of his hands. He observes his hands, watches them, so to say, he takes possession of them. He discovers that they are his own hands. Under the constant watch and control of the eyes, he learns to move his hands in and orderly and purposeful manner.

Practices hand movements

In the course of the second three months, the infant watches his hands with growing interest, trying specific movements time and time again. For example, sometimes it happens that a child will spend hours a day, sometimes weeks and even months closing his fist and opening it very attentively. Or it grasps one hand with the other. When the palm of the hand is touched, he immediately grasps the object that touches it. Letting go is more difficult, that has to be learned. The child often works away for weeks before the action of letting go becomes sure and easy.

Generally, the infant's interest in all the different possibilities of hand movement is unending. He also plays with his feet and toes, but never for as long or with such perseverance. [...]

Turns onto his side

When the infant is able to grasp things well, not only does he grab what is within range of his hands, but he stretches progressively in the direction that interests him. By reaching farther and farther to the crib bars, he gradually comes to lying on his side. He can also come to his side by turning his pelvis.

At first, lying on his side is a big venture. He's unsure of his balance, and we can observe at first, how he supports himself with difficulty with his head, his shoulder, his arm, his hand, and feet, and how it requires effort to stay in this position. He often turns onto his back to rest. Later, after much practice, he can easily spend a whole day playing on his side. He gains a whole new perspective in this position, as opposed to lying on his back, and can see his hands much better. He can play on his side like this for weeks.

Rolls over onto the belly

When he plays very confidently on his side, it can happen that he loses his balance and falls over onto his belly. He can also come to lying on his belly by propelling himself with the same movement that brought him onto his side. In this case, the arm usually ends up under the torso. This is indeed somewhat uncomfortable. The infant will often start to cry. If we help him to get back on his back, we might very well find him minutes later on his belly again. We can help him at first, but not constantly, not even when he cries a little. When we're sure he didn't end up on his belly by chance, it is better to let him find the way out. Sooner or later, he will help himself. How he does depends on his character, on his constitution. [...]

Turns over and back onto his back

It is easy for the newborn to turn over from his belly to his back. When the nude infant is places onto his belly, he will often lay his head sideways, the whole torso follows, and he's suddenly lying on his back. Later, when he can turn onto his belly by himself, lifts his head, we see that it is not so easy for him to turn over anymore, but he learns to do it within a few days, or sometimes in a few weeks.

Spends his days lying on his belly

The infant turns over on his back more and more often and spends more time lying on his belly. But lying on his belly is also something he has to learn, practice and perfect. At first he only lifts his head, then he learns to use his hands and arms while lying on his belly. His feet mostly swing freely in the air. But his torso remains unwieldy and awkward. The strong, flexible, elastic torso that participates in all the infants movements, moving with the head and limbs, that even directs the movement at times, is the result of months of activity.


At this time, the infant can move quite purposefully. Surprising as it may seem, the baby lying on his belly or his back, apparently incapable of moving, sooner or later reaches the object [...] he tries to reach. [...] He bends, stretches, in tiny caterpillar-like movements. This bending and stretching is one of the most important stages in movement development of the infant. At this time the inborn asymmetry of the torso and spine disappears. The spines straightens through these natural movements, the torso becomes elastic, flexible, muscular.

I cannot emphasize the importance of this stage enough. One confirmation of this is that the movements described above are used in physiotherapy for children with deflection in the spine, in the form of systematically repeated exercises. If we didn't force children into other kinds of movement, for example in sitting them up, or standing them, and were we to give them enough space and time for movement, for many months, day after day they would stretch and elongate and roll themselves from back to front, from front to back.


During the following three months, the baby learns to roll over back to front to back to front all in one direction, moving himself faster and faster from one place to the next, in order to reach the object of his interest with speed and certainty. He soon rolls so well that he is able to forge a direct path to where he wishes to go. With amazing dexterity he finds the position that allows him to move his head, neck, legs and arms freely. Sometimes his torso is only supported at one spot. All day as he plays, he kicks, stretches, rolls and wriggles.

Pulling himself on his belly, crawling on all fours

During the fourth quarter of the year, the baby begins to pull himself on his belly. At first, he mostly slides backwards instead of moving forwards, but he later gets better at moving forwards. Sometimes the arms lead, other times the legs. Many children truly move as if they are swimming with arms and legs up as if they were "front crawling". [...] Incidentally, every child moves differently on his belly, and the way he chooses to move, how this movement varies, and how long he practices specific variations of the forward movement is not a random thing. When he has sufficiently strengthened himself in this way, he gets up on his knees and rocks in the hands and knees position, and later possibly even on the soles of his feet and hands. All this takes months. During this time, the child practices innumerable variations of these movements.

Children with weaker torso muscles, for example, move on their bellies for a long time, thus strengthening their back and torso. Then comes crawling on all fours. A child with a weak back pulls himself for a long time on his belly, and later sometimes crawls for months, even at a high speed, without even thinking of sitting or standing. One often sees that in families where the parents also have weak backs. Naturally, these children also learn to sit and stand by themselves, only it is later than average. [...] If we have the patience to wait and not push them, they will eventually sit and stand well. [...]

Pulls himself into a vertical position

The first attempts to stand are usually in the last quarter of the child's first year. The child never tries to sit or stand on their own from the back position. It is always in the same order I have described. First he rolls onto his belly, becomes secure on his belly, starts to pull in his knees, etc. Generally five or six months go by from turning over onto his belly until the beginning of pulling himself up. From the secure position of lying on his belly, he turns with a raised head onto his side, propping himself up on his arm into a half sitting position, and later sits fully. Or he gets up on his knees, puts his weight first on one foot, then on the other and gets up. However every part of this process takes weeks or months, as all the previously described development stages.


One could write a whole thesis about the different ways of getting into the upright sitting position, about correct and incorrect sitting. What is then the difference between "correct" and "incorrect" sitting?

A child that sits correctly remains mobile while sitting. He shifts his body weight onto his sit bones. In this position, his torso rises up almost vertically. In a resting position, the area around the sacrum is stretched. The head lines up and continues with the line of the spine. This is the only way of sitting and not tiring. However, this does not mean that the child that sits correctly is "obliged" to always sit with a straight torso. This is simply his starting basis. [...]

The incorrect seated position is generally well known. The whole torso sinks limply into itself, the spine is bent, belly and chest are pressed together and so also the inner organs, breathing is less free. The most descriptive sign is that we apprehend that the child could fall over at any moment. He doesn't support himself on his sit bones, the part of the pelvis that serves the sitting position, but relies rather on the sacrum area (tailbone). In this position, his torso would fall over backwards, so to avoid this, he is forced to bend the torso forward.

To summarize: He who sits well, and is able to sit properly, sits not only upright but also efficiently. Sitting does not tire him. Sitting is not a strain but rather, it is restful for him. [...] Naturally, when children first begin to sit, they do not always sit well. At first they often sit with a bent back, cramped, crooked, and they do this with much effort. They then tire quickly and lay down again to rest. So let us never force children to sit. For a time they play crawling, on their belly, on their back again. Of course, only when they have the occasion to do so.  Later they will sit more and more often to play. But they constantly change their position in sitting, move back and forth, turn right and left and look for their balance accordingly. They stretch their legs alternately to the front, to the back, they kneel and sit on their heels, on both feet or on one foot or they sit between their knees on the ground, etc. [...] When they have learned to master balancing in the sitting position with ease and confidence, they play without effort and without tiring.

Stands up

Generally, the child tries to stand at the same time as trying to sit. It sometimes happens that a child will learn to stand and later learn to sit.  From the kneeling position or by rocking back and forth on their knees, they reach the bars of the crib or another stable object and pull themselves up. At first they usually support themselves in the vertical position[...]not so much on their feet, but clasping firmly with their hands. For assistance, they sometimes lean on their belly which they push out. Many children have a feeling at first of not being able to go back to the floor. When they are tired they either let go of the support and fall, or grasp even harder and eventually begin to cry. We can help them sometimes, but not all the time. The child can and will manage on their own. Nothing bad can happen when he falls, not even if he bumps his head lightly. Naturally, there are also children who are already able to sit down again from the first time they stand.

When they first begin to stand, children put very little weight on their legs. They often stand on their toes and generally with legs very far apart.  They don't remain in this position for very long when they have the choice to crawl. The child crawls away, then stands again somewhere else, crawl back, etc. Eventually they stand with more certainty, with more weight on their legs, and they support themselves on less stable furniture. The knees that are stiff at first begin to be suppler. The child stands straight, the back not pushed forward anymore. The grasping of the hands is not cramped anymore, the whole torso is more flexible and limber. In this phase they can get up and sit down nimbly at lightning speed or bend over and stand up again. Soon they can get up where there is nothing to hang on to, for example beside the wall, and they can even let go of their support for a moment, which they don't even notice as they play. [...]

Stands freely

They practice standing for months, until they are able to stand up without holding onto anything. [...] After a while they stand up more and more often, with a toy in their hand, without even noticing, and continue to play. Now that they can stand, and only now comes unsupported walking. [...] From pulling himself up to standing without support and walking without support takes generally from four to six months. They need this period of time to be able to stably transfer their body weight to the soles of their feet. Unsupported standing and unsupported walking follow each other. In the meantime, when the child is not trying to stand, he plays crawling, lying on his belly or sitting.


Generally, a child, whose motor development has not been interfered with, begins to walk without support in the first half of his second year. Even then, they are mostly attempts. Walking instead of crawling for the purpose of moving forward generally only comes later.  But even the child who walks very well still plays squatting, crawling and kneeling for a long time. (That is – it must always be added: when one does not prevent them from it.)

In the first phase of walking, children generally move with legs spread apart, turned-in feet, and uncertainly, like sailors on a swaying ship, and with the arm gestures of a tightrope walker. They balance with their hands, they try to grasp the floor with their feet and take little steps, often raising their knees up high. Of course that only lasts a few days. Soon enough they are more sure of themselves: they seem to walk with ease, but the far-apart legs, and the turned-in feet can go on for months, even years. The weaker and more badly formed the feet, knees, or hips are, the longer they walk in this way.

This too rights itself without assistance if we wait patently. Let us not interfere in the child's way of moving. Continue to give him the possibility to always move and play how he wishes! [...] Let the child roll, crawl, even when it can walk. Do not force him to walk for long stretches. [...]

A child with weaker legs quickly gets tired, possibly for years, and moves with their feet in a peculiar position. But if we don't overtax him, don't push him, then the legs strengthen themselves, and without anyone correcting or interfering, in time the feet turn forward and the legs come closer together, the walk becomes beautiful and certain, and the child becomes better able to carry himself with more resilience.

The time frame of movement development in early childhood is not the same with every child. Because when and which movements a baby practices not only depends on the condition of his health and upbringing, but also on other factors: on his physical and psychological disposition, possible anomalies, the resilience of his joints, the development of his sense of balance, etc. One child crawls at seven or eight months, stands shortly afterwards and sits. Another – otherwise well developed and healthy – maybe starts to crawl at the same time or a little later, but still doesn't stand or sit at a year. If one gives him the space and doesn't passively stand or sit him, it won't even occur to him to do this. That comes later.

I have not yet mentioned the most important thing: that is, that for a healthy infant, his own movements, the development of these movements, every detail of the movement, is a constant joy. If one leaves him in peace, the infant does not learn to turn, roll over, pull himself on his belly, crawl, stand, sit, walk with effort or under duress, but rather he is spurred on by his own impulse, independently and joyfully, proud of his own accomplishment. (Even when he sometimes gets angry in the process, or cries out with impatience.) At the same time, the infant observes his own movements with unbelievable interest and astonishing perseverance. He attentively studies one movement an innumerable number of times. Quietly, taking his time, experimenting, delving into it, he enjoys and becomes acquainted with every little detail, every nuance of the movement. Perhaps it is the repetition of this study in itself that brings the child such joy. In the first one to two years the child is preoccupied, "plays" for days on end, weeks, sometimes for months, with one movement. Every movement has its own development story. One is based in another. He makes progress, but with care. He gets to the rot of the thing, wants to be totally sure of everything. In this way the child learns to sit, stand and overall to move well.

But even more important than the result is the method. This process of learning plays an important role in all of the later life of the person. Through this form of development, the infant acquires independence, patience and perseverance with work, with the ability to direct all his attention towards his skills. So in his movement development, he not only learns to roll, crawl, sit, stand or walk, but he also learns to learn. He learns to occupy himself with something independently, to find interest in something, to try things, to experiment. He learns to overcome difficulties. He gets to know the joy and satisfaction that success brings – the result of his patient, self-motivated perseverance.