SILVER SPRING, Md, September 1, 2012 - The things parents look forward to the most are those big firsts in their children’s lives. The first time they laugh, the first time they roll over, the first word, and, of course, their first steps. And while a parent’s world completely changes once a baby becomes independently mobile, it is something we try to encourage and a skill we want to help her develop.
Walking is a developmental milestone that builds on several of the ones that come before it. So, if you want to encourage walking, encourage their skills at early ages. A baby cannot walk, if they do not have strong neck and back muscles. Neck muscles are developed during the early months of tummy time and lead to the ability to sit without support, which develops the back and stomach muscles.
Once your little one starts to sit upright by herself, enticing her with a toy to get her to reach and lean promotes crawling. Crawling teaches the coordination between legs and helps baby connect the ideas of movement.
Getting off the floor
So you are being run ragged by a little speed-demon on all fours, but your baby seems to be content just to motor along on the floor. While this is not something that should concern you, there are things you can do to encourage her to start standing.
To start with, when you put her down, try setting her in a standing position rather than sitting. If she’s not used to standing and balancing, you may need to support her at the torso.
Leg strength may be an issue if she lets her legs buckle under her. Try a jumper for short periods everyday. Jumpers help develop leg strength and help baby make the connection between her leg and foot motions and movement of her body.
Do not use a walker. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a ban on these devices. Not only do they not help develop leg strength because of how baby is supported, they are dangerous as well. Babies have fallen down stairs in walkers, and there have been enough deaths that manufacturers are now required to make the walkers wider than a standard 36 inch doorframe. Add to that the research that has shown that walkers can contribute to gross motor skill delays, and you understand why they are already banned in Canada.
Getting up and down
Once baby has developed the leg strength and the confidence to get her legs under her and support her own weight, you are well on your way towards walking. To encourage cruising, in which baby starts moving about using anything that is stable and within reach for support, place baby at sturdy objects in a standing position when you put her down.
The two big steps that she needs assistance with is learning how to pull up on her own, and conversely, learning how to get back down without hurting herself. Practice pulling up by taking her hands while she is seated and gently lifting while holding her arms over her head. Allow her to get her feet under her and push to assist in the standing. Once she figures out the basics of the movement, she will begin to use everything from the sofa to the wall to your legs to pull herself up.
But getting up isn’t enough. She has to get back down, and that’s a complicated task that requires a lot of balance. While holding onto a hand or an upper arm, help her bend her knees and lower herself to the floor. If you are holding her you can offer some stability, and if she starts to topple you can keep her from hitting her head in a fall.
Generally, once baby has figured out how to lower herself to the floor, falls become a little more controlled and end by landing on the butt with those same balance skills keep her from going backwards. Bad falls are still possible, and every baby is going to wind up with a bump and a bruise while learning to walk.
Cruising is the precursor to walking. Your little one is taking steps, although supported, and getting the first taste of the independence of being able to move on her own and reach thing she could not before. This is also a big step for parents, as they need to reevaluate the safety of their home.
Things that were safely out of reach just a few weeks ago may suddenly be dangerous attractive toys to your newly mobile baby. You also need to make sure all your furniture is stable. That means anchoring bookcases and tall bureaus to walls, and ensuring that furniture that might be tempting to climb is off-limits to an unsupervised baby.
Once you have established that your home is safe for a baby who wants to use everything for support, offer your hands and walk with her throughout the house furniture-free. This helps her develop balance, practice walking forward rather than the sideways shuffling of cruising, and get a taste of what walking really is.
Skip the shoes. Babies walk better barefoot. Shoes encumber their ability to grab the floor with their toes and use their feet to adjust their balance. Socks can make floors slippery and walking a hazardous activity. If you are going in the cold or are going to have baby walking on a rough surface, then shoes might be appropriate to protect the feet, but check baby’s feet afterwards. Poor fitting shoes can rub even tiny feet. If you see irritation from the shoes, get rid of them. You do not want blisters.
Independent standing makes the last big milestone before walking begins. Once baby has developed the confidence and balance to stand on her own she will likely start letting go.
To encourage this skill, try letting go of one hand when you have reached your assisted-walking destination. See how she reacts. Some babies will plop down, some will frantically reach for your hand to regain balance, some will just stand with one hand free and others will let go completely.
Once your baby is comfortable standing unassisted, try to increase the duration by turning standing into a game. Trying counting aloud for the duration of her standing and cheering, or try to create a game that distracts your child while standing to increase the amount of time her legs can support her unassisted.
The first steps
Once baby has the balance to stand by herself and she is comfortable cruising and doing assisted walks, she is not far from walking. Babies walk when then have incentive. To encourage walking try to get her to come to you from a nearby object she is holding onto, or if she is standing independently in the middle of the room try holding a favorite toy a couple of steps out of reach.
When to be concerned
While most developmental tables identify pulling up as a skill that is reached between 8 - 9 months, cruising as a skill between 9-12 months and walking between 12-15 months, every baby is different. If you had a late crawler, you may have a late walker. If your baby is chattering up a storm and taking her time getting her feet under her, she may be more concerned with communicating than with mobility.
Don’t worry if your baby is not hitting the checks on the developmental chart exactly. The milestones are guidelines, not absolutes. However, there is a time to become concerned. If you baby cannot stand with support by 12 months or walk by 18 months, talk to your doctor.
Otherwise, do not fret if your baby walks a month later than the baby down the street. Those first steps are going to be just as precious whether they come this week or next month.
Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.
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