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Putting the Brakes on Walkers

A mother at one of the message boards I frequent posted a question recently about using infant walkers.  Her pediatrician had recommended she not use a walker with her five-month-old and she was wondering the reasoning behind it, since her son seemed to love it so much.

Parenting a small baby is filled with dangers and frustrations, and you constantly teeter between fear of everything that your baby comes in contact with and desperately trying to find something – anything- that will keep your baby entertained for a few precious minutes while you fix dinner, get dressed, or just not have to watch the baby.  Any time you find something that seems innocuous, you are bathed in relief if your baby shows interest.  And if you discover a toy she loves that appears to be developmentally encouraging, you feel as if you’ve struck the jackpot.  I can remember a couple of weeks when the mobile in Maddie’s crib was one of the few things that would calm her down if she was crying (and when wasn’t she?); I could put her in her crib and turn the mobile on and she’d stare, entranced, while I used the time to, oh, get dressed or brush my teeth.  During those times, I thanked God for that mobile and knew that if had cost ten times its price I would have gladly paid it for the peace it brought me.
Infant walkers can seem like such a godsend: babies who hit 5 or 6 months seem eager to be moving, almost straining to charge forward.  Their joy at having some control over their movement is plain to anyone who watches them in such a toy, and you wonder how it could be bad for them.  Sure, everyone’s heard the stories of babies in walkers falling down stairs and dying, but is that it?  If you put a gate across your stairs, doesn’t that solve the problem and make the walker a safe and even beneficial toy for your child?
Unfortunately, the answer is no.  I’ve heard repeated questions from mothers about walkers, bewildered moms trying to figure out why this seemingly great toy is so vehemently opposed by many medical professionals.  So I’ve tried to gather the information for you and break down a few common misconceptions about the walker, to help everyone understand why it’s not the best toy for a baby.
“We don’t have stairs/ I always use the child protective gate/ I never leave my child alone in the walker.  How can it possibly be a health hazard to them then?”  The most obvious danger to a baby in a walker is the most visible one – the stairs.  Many babies have died after walking themselves to the edge of a staircase and falling down it.  But that’s not the only way accidents can happen.  The walker can get caught on an edge of carpet, a doorframe, or a piece of furniture, causing the walker to tip over.  Baby can hit his head against a coffee table edge or become trapped under the walker.  According to a study published in 2002, one in every three babies who use a walker will suffer significant injuries including skull fractures, finger amputation, spinal cord injury, and death.  That’s one in three.  No matter how closely you watch your baby, no matter how quickly you move, you may not be able to prevent that accident.  And think about the injuries such as burns or poisonings that happen because babies are able to reach things that would otherwise be inaccessible.  According to the AAP, 8,800 babies under the age of 15 months went to the emergency room as a result of using a walker in 1999 alone.
“How can a walker be bad for my baby developmentally?  My son is already almost standing, and loves being able to move himself around.  Isn’t this helping him learn to walk sooner by giving him practice?”  You would think so, but no.  Walkers encourage use of your lower legs, but not your upper legs which are so important to standing.  That makes sense, since it’s for babies who aren’t yet able to support themselves.  So you’re not giving the standing muscles any type of a workout, and you’re actually helping the skill develop backwards.
See, motor skills mature in a baby from the head down.  That makes sense since the top’s where the brain is.  If you notice, babies begin to control their waving arms before their legs; babies have fine motor skills in their hands before their feet.  Development travels down.  You can see the natural progression in the way babies begin to move.  First, the head lifts off the ground.  Then the head and the back.  Then babies push onto all fours.  Then they begin to practice balancing by sitting.  Then finally, they stand.  There’s a flow to this that is organic and natural, and moving a baby to a walker before their body’s ready to walk disrupts that.  A 1998 study proved that babies who used walkers hit their developmental milestones like crawling and walking later than babies who didn’t.  And this wasn’t 10 babies; it was 109 babies between the ages of 6 and 15 months.  In addition, this study reports that there’s a neurological disconnect between what babies are actually doing and what they are aware they’re doing; the plastic tray prevents them from seeing their feet, which keeps them from connecting what’s going on down there with what they are experiencing.  So there’s no motor development learning going on.  On average, babies who didn’t use a walker began walking at about their 10th month, while those who used walkers were on average 12 months old when they began walking.
“I’m not convinced.  My mom used a walker and I began walking when I was seven months old!  And anyway, my grandmother used a walker, my mom used a walker, and none of us kids got hurt.  Seems like a mom’s wisdom is better than these obscure studies.”  First off, there are exceptions to every rule.  For every child who began walking at 7 months there’s one who didn’t start until 14 months.  That’s why studies are done with large numbers of babies instead of one or two.  Second, my parents’ generation didn’t use car safety seats, and none of my parents’ friends’ babies died, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to use a car seat.  Studies have shown they save lives, and I know I’m keeping my baby safe by using one.  Watching my child die in an emergency room because I didn’t use a car seat because everyone I know got on fine without one is not an option to me.
“Studies can be found to support anything.  Anyone can take numbers and twist them to suit their argument.”  I totally agree, so there are several links at the end of this to articles I’ve drawn from or read to write this piece.
Here’s the bottom line: the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages the use of walkers.  They have been petitioning the U.S. government since 1995 to ban walkers, and renewed their efforts after Canada in 2004 banned the sale or advertising or importing of ANY new or used walkers.  So the AAP says not to.  Your doctor says not to.  Don’t you think there’s a good reason for it? 


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