Primitive Reflexes: The Answer Behind W-Sitting and How to Fix it
This article contains information regarding retained primitive reflexes and how they can be associated with W-sitting. It includes affiliate links for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
Children find such joy in playing imaginative games with toys and costumes. I wish multiple times a day, both silently and verbally, that my kids will stay little. Maybe there is a way to freeze time so they will stay the same ages they are now and forever play in the adventure land of childhood. While I dream, I must also realize that while children play, they are building and developing skills that affect more advanced abilities. There is much to observe with kids and play. Children teach us vast lessons regarding worldviews, imagination and innocence. In addition, while watching imaginative play, we as parents and caregivers can recognize some simple movements in our children that may indicate future issues with orthopedic conditions and gross muscle delays.
What is “W-Sitting”
Children have various positions that they sit and play in. One of the positions we see frequently is call “W-sitting.” This position is where a child sits with their bottom completely on the floor in between their legs, knees bent, and feet splayed out to the side. In this position, a young person is able to achieve a wider base of support which increases trunk stability, especially if this is a weak area for the child. This play stance naturally requires less postural control, which can allow the child more energy for focus on the toy. This tends to be a position of choice for children who have poor trunk stability or strength. You may have already seen several articles about W-sitting and how it affects children, however, we are going to explore the reasons behind it, what may cause W-sitting in children and how to fix it. Sometimes, the insufficient trunk strength is a result of a retained primitive reflex called the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR).
STNR and How It Relates to W-Sitting
In Sally Goddard Blythe’s book, The Well Balanced Child, STNR is present for a brief period immediately after birth and then reappears from about six to nine months of age. It then inhibits or “disappears” around nine to 11 months. This important reflex causes upper and lower sections of the body to perform opposite movements. It helps the baby prepare to creep and crawl. Goddard states that the creeping stage of development is extremely important. Weight bearing on the hands and knees prepares the spine for standing up so they can balance with walking. Your child’s vision and balance learn to operate together in this phase of a baby’s life as the discover gravity. Hand-eye coordination that develops during this phase results in better reading and writing skills for later in life. In The Well Balanced Child, it also describes how many children who experience some difficulties with both reading and writing did not crawl or creep in the first year of life.
There are multiple effects of the retained STNR that can impact your child’s learning. If your child still has the STNR after they are more than a year old, you may see the following signs:
- Slouching posture
- Poor hand-eye coordination (difficulty playing catch)
- Clumsy while eating
- Can’t sit still in a chair, legs are wrapped around chair or they prefer to stand
- Difficulties copying instructions (for example, looking at the whiteboard in school and copying notes to a piece of paper)
The problem with W-Sitting
W-sitting is one simple sign that your child may have a retained primitive reflex, but why is that concerning? Many health professionals believe this position may lead to orthopedic conditions, gross motor delays and can create weakness in the back, hips and legs.
This posture fixes the upper torso in place, only allowing your child to play with toys that are in front of them. He or she is unable to rotate around and cross one arm over the body at the midline to grab an object or something behind them. You will also notice that your child usually reaches for the object with whatever hand is closest instead of the dominant hand. All of these actions interfere with the development of bilateral integration and normal hand dominance.
Your child’s sense of balance can be slowed if these skills are not allowed to develop properly. It is very important that your child gains strength and control in their abdomen and back. This strength allows for greater capacity to run, jump and move with coordinated control, which helps your child’s vestibular system, visual planning, hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills for handwriting and reading.
How to test for the STNR
To determine if your child has retained the STNR primitive reflex, try this simple test. Have your child get down on all fours (hands and knees). Ensure that their back is flat like a table. You will want to sit in front of them (facing their head so you can watch their movement).
Instruct your child to move their head downward toward their chest so they are looking at their feet and have them hold that position for 10 seconds.
Then have your child bring their head up and lean it back so they are looking toward the ceiling and have them hold that position for 10 seconds. As your child completes this exercise, watch their back. If their back arches or dips at any time while they are completing these exercises, it means they have retained the STNR primitive reflex and this could be the cause for W-sitting and other postural issues.
How to integrate the STNR
If you have tested your child or student for the STNR primitive reflex and are sure they have retained it, your child may continue to show signs of poor muscle tone, W-sitting, balance and coordination issues, and learning problems in the classroom. Your child may need additional help to integrate the reflex that should have disappeared when they were a baby so your child’s body can perform better in the classroom.
Additional help or intervention may be beneficial for your child if you continue to notice delays in your child’s learning or side effects that can cause toe walking, bedwetting, poor balance and coordination, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, and trouble with motor planning. If your child struggles with any number of these issues, it could be an indication that the nervous system is underdeveloped.
To help you with these reflexes, the Retained Primitive Reflexes 101 e-Course provides videos, instructions and pictures that can provide support. The e-Course is only offered two times a year so join now to save your spot!
How to improve W-sitting
If W-sitting is your child’s preferred position, you many need to start integrating other postures while playing. Remember, W-sitting can be a sign of a retained primitive reflex, which is neurological. This reflex impacts actions, which makes changing a muscle habit difficult. The activities listed below can help strengthen your child’s core muscle, but will not “remove” the retained primitive reflex. The earlier you can change certain muscle memory in the child’s life, the easier it is for your child to learn in the classroom.
Other positions that should be encouraged are straight legs, side-sitting, stomach laying, criss-cross and kneeling. If you see your child W-sitting, ask them to sit “legs in front” or “criss-cross” as a gentle reminder to change positions. Both legs in front and sitting criss-cross are great positions for when your child is playing on the floor. Make sure your little one understands the different positions you are referring to when you ask them to switch positions. Show by example and play in those positions when you are on the floor with your child. Choosing to be consistent can help your child sit in new positions and can be the catalyst they need to help with strong core muscles and balance.
Other influential activities your child can do to improve their core strength is practicing yoga. Yoga provides wonderful benefits for your child, including breathing exercises to control anxiety, balance, and of course core muscle strength.
Another exercise is climbing. Most playgrounds now have rock walls, ropes and other structures that force the child to use midline crosses to move and climb upward. These are fantastic exercises to improve core strength, coordination and balance. These types of exercises remove the need or want for the child to continually sit in a “W” shape on the floor. As the core strength builds, the need to have a wider base when sitting declines.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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