As my youngest son is just starting to stand on his own, cruise along the coffee table, and walk with a push toy on his own, I have been reminded once again how amazing and significant learning to walk really is.
As a physical therapist, one of the most common questions parents ask me is, “When will my child walk?” Walking is a developmental milestone that is extremely meaningful for children and families. For children, walking leads to independence, exploration and learning, as well as improved ability to socialize and participate in home and community life. For families, walking is a very visible sign that their child is developing and healthy, and relieves the physical burden of having to carry or wheel their child everywhere.
Although there are many different “normal” variations of learning to walk, walking is a very visible skill and it is hard for parents NOT to compare their child to others they see. It is even harder to avoid listening to well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers ask questions and offer advice about walking, particularly if your child is a late walker (Is he walking yet? No? Well you just need to get him some hard-soled shoes!). I’m here to set the record straight with a few fun facts about walking.
1. 90% of healthy, typically developing children will take their first steps sometime between 9 and 15 months of age. On average, a child will take his first steps right before his first birthday, but this can vary widely from child to child. This does not mean that something is wrong if you child doesn’t walk by 15 months. I have seen many typically-developing children walk at 15-18 months or later, and late walking is rarely a sign that anything is wrong. However, in rare cases, late walking can be associated with neurological or genetic conditions, so it is a good idea to talk to your pediatrician if your baby isn’t walking by 15-18 months of age.
2. Learning to walk involves multiple body systems. In order to take his first steps, a child must have sufficient strength to hold his body up and the ability to move his legs in a walking pattern. The brain must be able to send signals to the body to activate the correct muscles in the correct order, the sensory systems must send information back to the brain about how the environment looks and feels, and the child must be motivated to walk. Even body shape/size plays a role – infants have a very large head relative to the body and one of the most challenging aspects of walking is overcoming that top-heaviness and controlling the head over the body. Children who are smaller or shorter may walk earlier than children who are larger or taller or have relatively large heads. The bottom line is this – no matter how “strong” or “smart” or “determined” your child is, he won’t take his first steps until all of his body systems are ready.
3. The best way to help a child learn to walk is: TUMMY TIME! It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to teach your baby to walk is to lay him on the floor on his tummy and let him learn to play, move, and explore. When babies are born, they have been packaged in the womb for 9 months and their bodies are sort of stuck in a flexed or fetal position. They have little to no ability to hold up their head, neck, and trunk. In the first few months, tummy time is critical to help babies stretch out the muscles on the front of their bodies and strengthen the neck and upper back. By the middle of the first year, babies begin to push up on their arms and come to hands and knees, strengthening their lower back, pelvis, hips and legs. All of these things are critical for learning to pull to stand, step, and walk.
4. Barefoot and soft-soled shoes are best for new and emerging walkers. See my previous post for more information on this.
5. Baby walkers are bad for development of walking. Apart from serious safety concerns (the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a ban on baby walkers in the US and they have been banned in Canada for many years), baby walkers don’t help babies learn to walk. In fact, research shows that children who spend time in baby walkers actually tend to walk later than their peers who do not. Baby walkers put babies in an unnatural standing position, take away the ability to see the legs and feet during stepping, and deny opportunities for crawling and pulling up. For parents who need to keep their baby contained for a few minutes, a playard or a gated baby-proofed room are much better solutions. And for learning to take first steps, a push toy allows baby to see his legs and feet and practice standing and stepping in a much more natural way. There are commercial push toys available, but most families have ordinary objects around the house that will work just fine – a play grocery cart or doll stroller, empty laundry basket, or large box are all perfect for holding on and pushing around the house.
6. Walking posture changes significantly in the first 3-4 years. Flat feet, walking on toes, or walking “bow-legged,” “knock-kneed,” or “pigeon-toed” can all be normal in the first few years of life. Walking typically looks adult-like by age 6-7. If you’re concerned about your child’s leg or foot posture during walking, you should talk to your pediatrician or physical therapist to find out if your child needs to see an orthopedic specialist or is a candidate for foot orthotics. But, as long as what you are seeing looks the same on both sides and isn’t causing any pain or problems with function, there is a good chance that what you are seeing is one of the many variations of “normal.”
The developing brain and body are truly remarkable, and the journey to walking is different for every child. My own sons are a perfect example of this. My oldest didn’t take a step until he was over 13 months old and didn’t walk well until he was nearly 15 months. It took him several more months to be comfortable walking on uneven terrain such as grass and gravel. My middle son took his first steps at 11 months and never looked back. By his first birthday, he was practically running everywhere – in the house, across the yard, and at the park. My youngest is now 9 months old and is already beginning to stand on his own. I suspect he’ll take his first steps within the next few weeks. All three of my boys developed their walking skills completely differently and on their own timetables. But you know what? They’re all absolutely typical and equally awesome!
Walk on, my little friends!
Created using The Keep Calm-o-matic: https://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-swaddle-on-3/
As many new parents will tell you, swaddling can mean the difference between a happy, rested baby and cranky, sleepless nights. In fact, one of my favorite parenting books – The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp – lists swaddling as one of the “5 S’s” to help babies keep babies calm and help parents survive the the first 12 weeks of infancy – the so-called fourth trimester. But why?
During pregnancy, the baby is contained in an environment (the womb) where she is constantly being held. She is contained from almost every direction, and – particularly during the final weeks of pregnancy when things get pretty tight in there – is unable to move without experiencing some resistance. After birth, the baby is (quite literally) pushed into an environment where she isn’t contained all the time and where her limbs can move freely. While this freedom of movement is important for developing the muscles for rolling, sitting, crawling, and walking, it can be unnerving for baby. Free movement of the limbs can give the baby the sensation that she is falling, triggering the Moro (startle) reflex (see this post for more info on newborn reflexes). A generation ago, when babies were typically placed on their tummies to sleep, the problem of flailing arms and legs wasn’t a big problem. Gravity pressed the arms, legs, head, and body against the mattress, provided womb-like resistance to movement and a sense of comfort for baby. However, in the early 90’s, we learned that it was much safer for babies be placed on their “Back to Sleep” (for more on what is now known as “Safe to Sleep,” click here). While back sleeping is an important recommendation and has had a significant effect on reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), gravity works against the baby in this position. Instead of pressing the limbs against the mattress and their little bodies, gravity pulls the limbs away from the body which results in flailing motions and startling. Babies simply feel less secure in this position and most don’t sleep well without their arms and legs contained. That’s why most babies need a way to transition from the comfort of sleeping in a cozy womb to learn to sleep while fighting against pesky out-of-womb issues like gravity and moving limbs. That’s also why many frustrated (and tired) parents find that the “only way” their baby will sleep is if they’re being held (and grandparents often aren’t much help – they didn’t put babies on their backs to sleep and so many didn’t swaddle). With back-sleeping, you have to trick the baby into thinking she’s being held. Enter swaddling.
From a developmental perspective, swaddling is absolutely safe (and can even be helpful), but there are some things to consider before you swaddle. Because the arms are generally considered the “trigger” for the startle reflex, the arms and upper body should really be the focus of the swaddle. In fact, care should be taken NOT to bind the baby’s legs tightly together when swaddling. Newborns have shallow hip sockets, which means their hips can dislocate much more easily than an older child’s or adult’s. Keeping the legs apart is a stable position for the hip (this is also a consideration in baby wearing – I’ll cover this in a future post). Forcing the legs together is a more unstable position and increases the risk of hip dislocation. So care should be taken when swaddling to keep the legs wrapped loosely while tightly wrapping the arms and trunk. This can be tricky (especially for a wiggly older baby), which is why I love fool-proof products such as the SwaddleMe blanket or the Woombie that firmly contain the arms while leaving the legs in a loose pouch. However, you don’t need a special product for the perfect swaddle – all you need is a good-sized blanket with just a little bit of stretch (I love Aiden & Anais Swaddle blankets and have also had good luck with basic waffle-weave receiving blankets). These blankets should provide plenty of warmth without overheating baby, but – if you think your baby may be a bit warm – you may want to undress her down to a t-shirt or onesie before swaddling.
First, lay the blanket on the floor or bed and fold the top corner down.
Next, lay the baby on the blanket with his shoulders at the top of – or just slightly below – the fold.
Fold one side over the baby’s trunk, going over the arm on the same side and UNDER the arm on the opposite side. Tuck the blanket firmly under baby and give the loose end of the blanket a tug to keep everything tight.
Take the bottom corner of the blanket and bring it over the uncovered arm/shoulder. Tuck it under the shoulder/upper arm, creating a nice loose pouch for the legs to move. Make sure both arms and shoulder are contained – the whole point is to make sure the baby can’t work his arms out of the swaddle. I also like to make a small fold over the top of the remaining “tail.”
Take the remaining tail of the blanket and wrap it tightly around the baby’s arms, bringing it back around the front. Give it a good, firm pull. Don’t be afraid to make it nice and snug around the arms!
Tuck the loose end in to complete the swaddle.
And there you have it!
So how long should you swaddle? Swaddling is most helpful during the first 3-4 months of life, but some babies continue to need swaddling for a few more months (which is perfectly safe as long as they are still unable to roll over while swaddled). Once babies begin to gain more control of their movement, they are usually able to get into their own preferred position of comfort while sleeping and are less likely to startle, so the swaddle is not longer needed. I was effective in weaning both of my older sons from the swaddle at 4-5 months by swaddling with one arm out, then the other arm out, then getting rid of the swaddle completely.
Of course, swaddling should only be used for calming a fussy baby and during sleeping. When baby is awake, he should be unwrapped so he learns how to move and control his limbs on his own. Laying down on an old-fashioned blanket on the floor during play time should give plenty of opportunity for movement and exploration, and all young babies should practice “tummy time” several times a day while awake with supervision.
A swaddled newborn is a happy newborn!