Baby walkers have been historically thought to improve motor skills of infants associated with walking. And they're still in millions of daycares and homes today.
But studies show that any claims that they are beneficial for babies are simply untrue. Studies from as far back as the late 1990s prove that walkers are actually a detriment to normal develop because they obstruct the infant's ability to see their legs move and make the connection between limb movement and spatial movement.
Beyond that, they can be deadly. The cause of at least 30 deaths since 1970, baby walkers are inherently dangerous and provide no developmental benefit, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
"Walkers are very dangerous," says pediatrician Dorota Sczecpaniak of Riley Children's Health in Indianapolis, "and I agree with the AAP's recommendation to ban their production."
Here's what you need to know as a parent.
Around 2000 children visit US emergency rooms every year for walker-related injuries.
"Ninety percent of walker-related injuries are to the head and neck, and the rest are mostly upper extremities (arms and hands). Bruises and contusions to the scalp and face are common," explains Dr. Sczcepaniak, and concussions occur in more than 25 percent of cases. "While fractures happen less frequently, about five percent on walker-related injuries, more than half of these fractures are dangerous skull fractures."
When walkers first hit the scene in the early 1970s, they were incredibly popular. Parents thought they'd finally found the answer to keeping baby occupied, engaged, and active while giving busy parents a break.
But shortly after their popularity spiked, so did ER visits for injuries like concussions, abrasions, burns, and fractures. Giving babies the freedom to explore their environments unhindered led to accidents. Falling down staircases, burns from otherwise inaccessible hot liquids, and even rolling down the driveway into the street were all fairly common baby walker incidents.
Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician practicing at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, has always urged parents to use caution if they choose to let their babies explore in a walker.
"I think families should consider the significant dangers associated with using baby walkers in unsafe environments. I also think families should acknowledge that we are more distracted today in comparison to 20 years ago. Because of this, we are more likely to keep our infants and toddlers free of significant injury by avoiding baby walkers."
He encourages parents who opt for walkers to only allow their baby access in a completely hazard-free environment. "I let my parents know that in safe environments (no steps, no pointed edges of tables, no hot liquids, no bodies of water, or essentially a wide open space with four walls and free of hazards), a baby walker can probably safely be used with close supervision."
While baby activity walkers initially seemed like the gold standard, the risk isn't worth the reward. There are safe alternatives to walkers, though. Stationary play centers or bouncers, provide developmentally appropriate stimulation without the risk of injury common with mobile walkers.
"Parents can use stationary bouncers for infants and toddlers, where a child is allowed to sit/stand in a fabric seat," says Woods. Bouncing and spinning within the confines of the play center "will develop a child's tone, or inner musculature, in their feet, legs, thighs, and hips."
There are an overwhelming number of baby walkers and jumpers on the market and choosing one can be difficult. The best baby jumper will have a wide, sturdy base and safe, age-appropriate toys that cannot be swallowed by curious babies. Removable fabric seats are also a plus for parents, making clean-up a little easier.
Baby push walkers, like VTech's Sit To Stand Learning Walker, are also an option. Push walkers don't allow baby the unfettered freedom of traditional walkers and most models allow parents to control the speed at which the wheels move. Keep in mind though, any mobility toys should only be used under close supervision.
When considering alternatives to a baby walker age is a crucial factor. Babies must be able to sit on their own, unassisted by pillows or other support. Placing an infant in a baby jumper, walker, or activity center too earlier can result in developmental problems and delays.
To help baby work on those motor skills, Dr. Sczcepaniak recommends lots of tummy time and freedom to crawl and cruise.
"Allow for tummy time, crawling, cruising, and exploration in a safe environment. For cruisers, (holding on to the edge of furniture or walls while walking) make sure the coffee table and furniture with sharp edges are not in close proximity."
Safety is a huge consideration when infants become mobile. "Childproofing at home is extremely important to prevent injuries as well as to allow for the safe development of your child." She also encourages lots of outside time."Plan for outside play on the grass or blanket. Ask family and friends to help keep an eye on an exploring toddler for extra supervision." She urges parents to keep in mind that the age at which your child walks is mostly determined by genetics not necessarily the amount of time spent in an exerciser or bouncer.