Walking Worries

Take your child's first steps in stride with reassuring advice from the experts.
baby standing

Shannon Greer

Six or seven million years ago, our ancestors stood up on two feet and walked -- a milestone in evolution. A baby's early steps can seem just as momentous, to you and your child. "Once kids become upright, their worldview and their view of themselves begins to expand," says child psychologist Carol Baicker-McKee, Ph.D. Walking separates babies from toddlers, so to parents it signifies that their child is growing up. No wonder we have so many worries about this developmental high point: Will my baby walk on time? Does walking late mean she'll be unathletic? What should we do to fix his pigeon toes? We've addressed the most common concerns about going mobile.

The Issue: She's slow to crawl.

Studies suggest that kids who crawl early have a slight tendency to walk early, says Laura Levine, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of Child Development: An Active Learning Approach. While most kids crawl for at least three months before walking, not all will follow the typical progression -- rolling, sitting up, crawling, pulling up, standing alone, cruising, and then walking. In fact, in recent years, as parents have been putting babies to sleep on their back to help prevent SIDS, kids are on their stomach less and get fewer opportunities to work the neck and trunk muscles that facilitate crawling. "As a result, many kids are crawling later -- and some skip it and go straight to walking," Dr. Levine explains.

It's fine to give your child an incentive to crawl, such as putting her on the floor and then placing a few toys just beyond her reach. "Just keep in mind that children will do things when they're ready," says Lynn Davidson, M.D., a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at Montefiore Hospital in New York City.

While crawling is not critical to normal development, it is important that your child develops the ability to use the muscles on both sides of her body, which can be seen when she is scooting on her tummy. "Kids don't develop handedness until age 2," explains Dr. Davidson, so if your little one favors one side, only rolls in one direction, or always uses the same foot when scooting, see your doctor to rule out possible neurological problems.

The Issue: He's late to walk.

It may seem like every kid in the playgroup is walking except yours, but it's normal for kids to start toddling any time between 8 and 17 months of age (or later if your baby was premature). "Walking is a complex task that requires strong muscles, the development of nerve pathways, and dynamic balance," Dr. Baicker-McKee explains. If your kid is on the slower side, it doesn't mean he will be less coordinated or intelligent than his peers, she says. 'Still, most pediatricians will evaluate a baby who isn't walking by 18 months -- just to make sure there isn't an underlying problem."

About half of kids will be walking by age 1 and 90 percent by 15 months. "When a child isn't walking by this point, I first check to see if a confidence issue might be holding him back -- he may be scared to take steps without a hand to hold, say -- or if he doesn't have the balance or strength to walk on his own," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411.

If confidence is the issue, Dr. Brown recommends letting your kid practice with a walking toy, like a kid-size grocery cart, or a product like Walking Wings, which is designed to let him walk while you hold on for added support. Avoid baby walkers, which can be dangerous (a child can fall down the stairs) and actually delay walking, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Finally, try not to push your child to walk on his own until he's ready. "It can cause stress and end up delaying those first steps," says Dr. Baicker-McKee.

The Issue: Her stride is funny.

When your toddler first starts wobbling along on two feet, her legs are likely to be slightly bowed -- a holdover from her position in the womb. This should self-correct by age 3. "We don't worry about bowlegs unless they're severe or asymmetrical, but you should talk to your doctor if you're concerned," says Dr. Davidson. Walking with one's feet turned a little inward or outward isn't typically a concern, either. "Most of the time, the issue resolves with practice," says Dr. Brown.

However, doctors may take notice if your child persistently walks on her toes. Some kids like gripping with their toes, others do it because they have short Achilles tendons, which makes it harder for them to plant their feet, Dr. Brown says. If your child can't relax her feet and plant them firmly on the ground, have your pediatrician investigate. Although toe-walking has been linked with some developmental problems, including autism, most toe-walkers do not have autism. Unless the behavior is accompanied by other delays, it's probably just one of many phases your kid will go through. Says Dr. Davidson, "Before you know it, she'll be running everywhere and you'll be wondering, 'Why did I want this kid to walk so soon?'"

Activity Tips: Nate 12 months -Walking with Support
Activity Tips: Nate 12 months -Walking with Support

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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