W-Sitting: Not Good for Grandkids?

You've heard the warnings. Is w-sitting a normal part of child development or an invite to lifelong orthopedic issues?

By Kristen Sturt

No matter where and how you grew up, odds are you heard the following old wives’ tales from well-meaning adults. Perhaps you even passed them on to your own children and grandchildren:

  • Don’t cross your eyes! If someone hits you, they’ll never uncross!
  • Don’t make that terrible face! It could get stuck like that!
  • Don’t chew on your hair! Little girls have choked and died that way!

Generally speaking, these kinds of dubious medical maxims have little basis in reality. (The last one? All too true.) However, there’s another oft-heard aphorism that’s a little more ambiguous; it’s exaggerated somewhat by media and some medical professionals, but based in truth and good intentions:

Don’t sit in a w!

What is w-sitting?

W-sitting occurs when children plop themselves on the floor, legs splayed to each side, with knees bent and angling forward (see photo). If you were to observe your granddaughter in this position from above, you’d see her legs form the letter "w." (Thus the name.)

Kids as young as eight months w-sit because it gives them a wide, steady base, making it easier to reach for toys. "A child is able to engage with the environment immediately in front of them," says Brittney Weinerth, Occupational Therapist and Clinic Director at Almaden Valley Children's Therapy Center in San Jose, California. "They don’t have to work as hard to concentrate on stabilizing themselves."

For the most little ones, sitting this way is completely normal—a typical part of early development. In fact, w-sitting can help grandbabies develop important skills for more sophisticated movements. "It’s all about variety," says Joni Redlich, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Board-Certified Pediatric Clinical Specialist at Kid PT in Somerset, New Jersey. "Children move in and out of different positions during play. Children who incorporate w-sitting into a variety of sitting positions, such as cross-legged, side sit, long sit, are using trunk rotation, using both hands together, and developing pelvic control that will provide stability in walking."

So, if you see your grandchild w-sit on occasion, and she uses it in conjunction with other sitting positions, stand down. She’s most likely fine.

When should you speak up?

On occasion, however, w-sitting becomes more than a phase. According to many, many therapists and doctors, extended periods of reliance on the position can cause issues with posture, movement, muscle tone, and even hand preference.

"Children who w-sit as their primary sitting position are the children who concern physical and occupational therapists," notes Dr. Redlich. "This pattern limits crossing midline [ie. reaching across the body – ed.], trunk rotation, and the ability to develop hip mobility and strength." It can also stress joints, like the knees and hips, and increase tightness in the muscles.

If you see that your grandchild never switches to other sitting positions, it might be time to broach the subject with parents. "If that lack of variety is present, the child should be evaluated by a physical therapist," says Dr. Redlich.

For certain kids, w-sitting is always a big no-no, since it’s part of bigger developmental issues like cerebral palsy. "Children with orthopedic impairments should avoid sitting in a w-position at all times," says Weinerth. "[It can cause] muscle tightness, and reinforce abnormal patterns of movement." Check with a therapist for comfortable alternatives.

Of course, there are exceptions to these circumstances—situations when long-term w-sitting is common and comfortable for little ones. Some children, for instance, w-sit due to a specific leg condition called femoral anteversion (which also causes pigeon toes) that will correct itself over the years. "[It’s] an inward twisting of the femur,” says Dr. Randall Loder, pediatric orthopedic surgeon for Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. "It’s natural for them to w-sit. In time, they will begin sitting in a criss-cross style when it becomes comfortable."

Remember: Don't stress

Though some believe differently, the majority of children who w-sit are—and will be—fine. "The effects are exaggerated in the media," says Dr. Loder. "It is a natural way for children to sit as their bodies are developing."

Dr. Redlich agrees that the dangers of w-sitting are overstated, but notes that mindfulness of potential issues can go a long way toward preventing future problems. "Awareness is important," she says, "as more children who could benefit from intervention can receive access. But the effects for typical children are exaggerated in my opinion."

So, next time you’re tempted to parse out sitting advice, try:

It’s usually okay to sit in a w, but be aware of potential problems due to overuse!

It's long-winded, but it works.

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