When Will My Preemie Learn to Sit Up?

Smiling baby plays with toy train
Premature babies should learn to sit up according to developmental milestones for their corrected age. Getty Images / Digital Vision

Many parents worry that their preemies aren't meeting developmental milestones on time. Remember that charts of developmental milestones are general guidelines that give parents an idea of about when their children will learn new skills. There is a wide range of ages at which children will meet new milestones, whether they were born early or on time.

If your preemie is now a healthy baby who had a smooth NICU course and no serious long-term effects of prematurity, he should learn to sit up according to normal developmental milestones for his corrected age:

  • By 6 to 9 Months: By the time preemies reach 9 months corrected age, they should be able to sit up without support from pillows or a parent.
  • By 10 to 12 Months: By 12 months corrected age, preemies should be able to play with a toy with both hands while sitting up without support.

Remember to use corrected age when comparing preemies to a chart of developmental milestones. Corrected age is the age your baby would be if he was born at term. If your baby is 8 months old but was born 2 months early, his corrected age would be 6 months old.

Why Do Some Preemies Learn to Sit Later Than Others?

Although most preemies will learn to sit up within the normal time frame, preemies tend to meet developmental milestones later than full-term babies, even after adjusting for corrected age. The average preemie will learn to sit up at 7.4 months corrected age, while term babies learn to sit up at about 7.2 months.

Babies who are born very early or who have many health problems tend to meet milestones, including learning to sit up, later than other babies.

Your preemie may learn to sit up later, even after correcting for gestational age, if he or she:

  • Was born before 27 weeks gestation
  • Weighed less than 750 grams at birth
  • Suffers from bronchopulmonary dysplasia or chronic lung disease
  • Has been hospitalized frequently
  • Still needs significant medical support (feeding tubes, help breathing, etc)

When Should I Worry?

Although preemies might learn to sit up a little later than their full-term peers, most preemies (about 90%) will learn to sit up by 9 months corrected age. If your baby is not sitting up by 9 months or is not using both hands to play while sitting by 12 months corrected age, talk to your pediatrician.

What Can Parents Do to Help?

A close relationship with your pediatrician can help you ensure that your preemie thrives. Pediatricians who know their patients and their families well can help decide if a baby who is late meeting milestones is showing normal effects of prematurity or has signs of a developmental delay. They may be able to recommend therapies, such as occupational or physical therapy, that can help preemies catch up to their peers.

Also, if your baby was born early, ask as soon as you can if your baby qualifies for early intervention.

Early intervention is a group of programs that help babies and toddlers who are at risk for developmental delays to thrive. Some babies will qualify for early intervention from the moment they leave the NICU.

Getting help so early can minimize the long-term effects of prematurity.

Sources

Bucher, H., Killer, C., Ochsner, S., Fauchere, J. "Growth, Developmental Milestones and Health Problems in the First 2 Years in Very Preterm Infants Compared with Term Infants: A Population Based Study." European Journal of Pediatrics 2002: 161, 151-156

Emory University School of Medicine. "Developmental Milestones" accessed 9-10-10 from http://www.pediatrics.emory.edu/divisions/neonatology/dpc/mileston.html

MA Marin Gabriel, et al. "Age of Sitting Unsupported and Independent Walking in Very Low Birth Weight Preterm Infants with Normal Motor Development at 2 Years." Acta Paediatrica 2009: 98, 1815-1821.

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