Gina Mydlo, PT, DPT
Play Seats: 5 Things to Know Before Baby Sits in One
Play seats - they seem like such a simple and fun purchase for baby – right? There are so many different ones out there on the market right now, and the options can seem overwhelming. Not only that, the fact that there are so many makes it seem like they are an absolute necessity.
Play seats actually have more of an impact on your baby’s development than you think. There’s a lot to consider when deciding if it’s appropriate for your baby to use, and as a pediatric physical therapist, I often educate parents on whether or not they should use one with baby.
⠀ So before you purchase a play seat, here’s 5 things you should know:⠀
1. Play seats are containers.
Containers are anything that you can strap baby into that doesn’t allow for free movement (baby swings, bouncy seats, car seats, exersaucers, jumpers.)
Babies have to move freely to be able to learn and develop, and this is best achieved when baby is placed on the floor. Any time spent in a container is time spent away from the floor, so choosing to place our babies on a safe surface on the floor is always preferred when we have the choice.
2. They don’t teach baby how to sit.
This is a common misconception, and one that I like to make sure parents are aware of. Because in fact, spending too much time in a play seat can delay learning how to sit. Babies develop certain milestones in a general order for a reason. Babies learn how to sit upright by practicing the foundational milestones that come before sitting, like playing on their tummy, reaching and grasping, rolling over, and pulling up. Babies don’t learn to sit by being placed in a container before they are ready. Also, play seats actually limit movement and prevent baby from practicing the skills they need to learn to sit upright on their own.
3. The type of play seat matters. (And it matters big time!)
With some of the other containers that I’ve written about (bouncy seats, baby swings, exersaucers), it doesn’t really matter what brand you have because a bouncy seat is a bouncy seat and a baby swing is a baby swing. But play seats are made differently and the type of seat you choose matters.
Make sure to grab my free guide to find out the names of all the containers I recommend or not.
Basically, you are looking at two different types of play seats: ones that promote or at least allow for an upright posture, and ones that don’t.
Play seats that have a rounded bottom or are made of fabric or sling-like material will NOT support an upright posture for baby. 👇
Fisher-Price Sit-Me-Up Bumbo Floor Seat
Play seats that have a flat, rigid bottom and a flat, rigid upright backrest WILL allow for an upright posture. 👇
Summer Infant Deluxe SuperSeat Fisher Price Healthy Care Deluxe Booster
Why is this so important?
Well for one, we really want to be promoting an upright posture in our infants because that is how they will use and strengthen their muscles necessary for many developmental skills. If baby has a rounded posture (slouch down in your chair and this is what I’m talking about), then their essential core muscles will be turned OFF instead of ON. We need baby’s core to turn ON so that baby can sit independently, crawl, stand, walk, reach for toys, eat, have bowel movements, and so much more.
We also want to protect baby’s spine and encourage the best alignment. When baby sits in a play seat that has a rounded bottom or made of sling-like material, then their spine becomes rounded like the shape of a “C”. But as baby grows, we want baby’s spine to mature to the shape of an “S”. Baby’s spine can’t progress to the correct curvatures if they are constantly in a rounded position. Correct alignment of the spine affects baby’s posture, muscle length and strength, and also integrity of the nervous system – so it can have a pretty dramatic effect on the body.
But if you choose a play seat that has a rigid flat bottom and upright back, then your baby will be able to use their core muscles a little more and they won’t be stuck in a slouched position. That’s because their pelvis can rock forward since it is sitting on a rigid, flat surface. Also, they won’t be reclined and they have some freedom to lean forward and sit upright.
⠀ 4. Most are not suitable to feed baby in.
A baby should be completely supported in a highchair when you start introducing solids, or else they will not be able to eat well. A baby needs a rigid flat bottom, tall upright backrest, hip and trunk support, and if possible, a footrest. Most of the play seats will not allow for the type of support that baby needs - even though there is a picture on the box of a baby eating in it. ⠀
If baby is not supported well, then baby is going to be focusing too much on trying to keep their body upright, and not enough on what their mouth is doing. For the mouth to be successful in managing food (whether it’s puree or not), the body must be stable and well supported.
Also, if a baby is reclined at all (which happens in many play seats), that increases the risk of aspiration of food or drink. So just like it is unsafe for baby to eat in a bouncy seat or car seat, it is unsafe for baby to eat semi-reclined in a play seat.
⠀ 5. Too much time in them = too much stress on their body.
It’s also important to note that a baby that is not strong enough to manage gravity in an upright seated position should not be strapped into a play seat for an extended period of time. This will only fatigue baby’s muscles and cause stress to baby’s joints – particularly their spines and hips. If a baby is repeatedly put into a play seat before they are strong enough to sit on their own, then that can also lead to overtightening of some muscles and overstretching of others – particularly when the type of seat doesn’t allow for an upright posture.
What’s too much time? That depends on the child and their ability level. But a good rule of thumb is not more than 10 minutes at a time, and not more than 20 minutes total a day. If that doesn't sound like much time, think about how often you shift and move in your chair. Imagine being stuck in the exact same position for longer than 10 minutes - you'd get pretty uncomfortable and stiff! The same goes for our babies.
And if your baby is experiencing developmental delays, torticollis, asymmetries or tightness in their body, or is not able to hold his head up well, then it would not be appropriate to use a play seat.
Play seats can be a fun place for baby to hang out!
They can be helpful for parents who need to keep their baby safe and happy for a few minutes without being held.
Play seats are not essential for supporting an infant's development.
Not all play seats are made the same - the shape of them matters.
They don't teach baby how to sit and can instead contribute to developmental delays.
Knowing your intention of using these play seats is key.
I believe parents should be fully educated on the pros and cons of using play seas so they can make informed decisions! Hopefully this gave you a lot more confidence if you choose to purchase a play seat for your baby!
Remember to grab my free guide on How to Buy for Baby for tons of other expert recommendations on bottles, swaddles, pacifiers, toys, containers, and more!
Gina Mydlo, PT, DPT