Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Children between 6 and 12 months old have a powerful urge to move across the floor. When they are placed in baby walkers, most of them squeal with delight, and are happily entertained for hours on end. I can still remember the expression of sheer ecstasy on my first son’s face as he moved across the floor in his walker.
We want our children to be happy. Often their delight is a good measure of what they need — but sometimes it can lead us astray. Sometimes short-term delight can lead to unfortunate long-term consequences. Children can’t think of the future. As parents, part of our role is to do that for them. With each new choice, consider what this teaches your son, how this will affect your son, what are the implications for your son — over the long haul.
Since the days when my first son was an infant, we have learned that walkers are detrimental to normal development. Because the babies can get around too easily, their urge to move across the floor is satisfied, and many of them will not undertake the important task of crawling, creeping, scooting, or hitching. This stage is important for developing strength and coordination.
Many parents think that walkers will help children learn to walk. As it turns out, walkers interfere with learning to walk. In addition to decreasing the desire to walk by providing an easier alternative, walkers strengthen the wrong muscles. The lower legs are strengthened, but the upper legs and hips become relatively weak. The upper legs and hips are most important for walking.
Moreover, children in walkers have more accidents than their counterparts. Walkers often tip over when a child bumps into a small toy or the edge of a rug. They are also more likely to take a dangerous fall down a flight of stairs.
Along with The American Academy of Pediatrics, I strongly urge parents not to use baby walkers.
For children who want to be upright, an exersaucer can be a nice alternative. These look like walkers, but without the wheels. They allow children to bounce, rock, spin, and sit upright — without satisfying the urge to move across the floor. They are safer and developmentally appropriate.
Your son might like a sturdy push-car or wagon. These might look like lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners, cars, fire engines, trucks or wagons. Be sure it has a bar he can push, and is sturdy so it won’t tip over. These will help a child strengthen the right muscles and learn to walk — but you still have to supervise directly and to be very careful about stairs.
When your son gets a little older, and has been walking long enough to be able to squat and stand back up without falling, he will be delighted by push and pull toys — especially the ones that make lots of noise. These add sparkle to his developmentally appropriate tasks.
With practice, you can learn to choose toys that delight your son while helping him learn what he needs — instead of short circuiting the process by providing easy, numbing entertainment. We’ll all make mistakes along the way, but the process itself will enrich us and our children.
Last reviewed: July 14, 2010