As a physical therapist who works primarily with the 5 and under crowd, I have had the pleasure of witnessing many babies’ very first steps. Some of the proudest moments I’ve experienced on the job have involved children meeting their milestones for the first time. Watching a child develop the confidence in his abilities to venture onto unfamiliar terrain on his own makes the months leading up to that moment so worthwhile.
I am sure that I do not have to talk about the importance of walking as part of typical development. What parents don’t realize are the components of human ambulation and the importance of each step. For many new parents, I often reiterate the fact that weight-bearing through their feet is a great way for babies to learn. They learn how their bodies move, strengthen their muscles and bones, and receive the appropriate feedback from their environment to perform more and more challenging tasks, such as jumping, and running, and stairs.
Often, first time parents are unsure how to best encourage their child to take those first steps. So how do we facilitate and not hamper their exploration?
How best to help out a toddler learning to walk:
- Cruise is first: About a month after a baby first learns to pull to stand, he will start cruising along furniture. At this time, he still relies on his hands a lot for standing and doesn’t yet have the full grasp of shifting his weight from foot to foot. Help him cruise along by placing toys just out of reach and he will slowly become more and more stable when all his weight is on one side. Cruising long distances increases baby’s standing stamina and strengthens those important hip and thigh muscles. Place toys on a low surface off to the side and behind him, and he will learn to let go with one hand and rotate in his trunk. Trunk rotation is an essential component of reciprocal walking later on. Click here to read more about cruising.
- Where to support: Contrary to popular practice, the best place to support a baby just learning to walk is actually at his trunk. If you take an early walker (say, 9-10 months old) by both hands and try to lead him, he is most likely going to tilt his body forward and step really quickly to try to catch up with his center of gravity. This will not help him place weight throughout his whole feet. Instead, he may rise up on his toes. Weight-bearing through the heels during early walking is important. That impact from the ground helps build muscles and bones up the chain so babies’ thigh bones and hip joints can become strong and stable enough to support their growth. When assisting babies to walk, stay with them and let them lead, however slow each step may be. For more info about best ways to support a toddler learning to walk, click here.
- Slow them down: Children usually start to take steps on their own after they feel safe during independent standing. With each new step, babies will keep their feet wide apart so they can feel balanced. Many parents I know like to give their babies a push-toy such as a doll stroller or shopping cart so they can speed walk around the house. While these toys may seem like a great way to get babies moving on their feet, if given to a baby in the early stages of walking, they also encourage poor postures and improper weight shifts. If you have to use push-toys, weigh them down. When a baby takes each step slowly, he can experience the way his center of mass transfers over the entire surface of his feet. His foot muscles and his ankle joints need to experience the hard work required by each step in order to properly respond and develop the balance strategies he needs for later.
- No shoes or socks: While I tell parents from early on that babies should experience their environment with only a diaper on, many parents think shoes are a necessary part of early walking. Many pediatric therapists will tell you how important it is for babies to learn to walk barefoot. Why? Because babies rely on the feedback they feel from the ground to adjust their standing balance as needed. Standing and learning to walk on plush carpet, grassy terrain, or hardwood floor are all so different and our joints, muscles, and posture have to adjust accordingly. Taking that proprioceptive feedback away from babies just learning to walk by giving them shoes will make them unaware of the differences between surfaces. Read here for information about the best footwear for babies.
- Importance of squatting: Squatting is a key play position for babies. Starting as early as 9-10 months, babies can lower themselves slowly from a standing position while holding onto furniture. So place some toys at his feet and try to get him to pick them up. That up and down motion, supported or unsupported, is great for strengthening hip and thigh muscles. Learning to safely transfer their weight during standing tasks will help them with walking skills. Eventually, around 15 months, a toddler is able to stand unsupported, pick up a toy from the floor, stand back up, and keep walking, all without any help from us. Now that is one independent baby on the move!
The typically developing baby learns to walk around 11-15 months. He might not look stable and he may fall after a few steps, but he is doing what he should. He is trying. Every child is different in how and when he chooses to take that first independent step. Our job is to provide a safe and motivating environment for him. If your baby is not making any attempts to stand by 12 months, or has been standing for a few months and seems to drag one side and trips often, or still has not walked by 16-18 months, it is a good time to bring up your concerns with your pediatrician and contact a physical therapist for an evaluation.