"The human body was made for moving," says Shari Barkin, M.D., the division chief of general pediatrics at the Monroe Carrel Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville. And strong gross motor skills are important for one simple fact: Your toddler needs them to get around physically. Plus, being able to master gross motor skills also means that the brain, muscles, and nerves are functioning in sync. But for toddlers, psychologically mastering running is essential, too. "Being able to run brings a true sense of independence and joy," Dr. Barkin says. "If you've ever noticed children running, they are often laughing -- it brings a real sense of happiness." Also, each mini-sprint helps strengthens bones and muscles, a huge boon to staying active and healthy later on.
When your toddler turns into Speedy Gonzalez, he's flexing his muscles -- literally. "Running falls under the developmental domain of gross motor," says Sara Hamel, M.D., a behavioral and developmental pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. This type of development is a huge leap for your sure-footed squirt, as it requires mastering many motor skills, including walking and balance. "A lot goes into developing balance; in fact, we think of this as a motor milestone," Dr. Barkin says.
Running usually occurs between 18 to 24 months, "but there is a huge range of normal," Dr. Barkin says, and age ranges for meeting developmental milestones should serve merely as a general guideline. It's important to remember that each child is different and will meet milestones at different points, when they're ready. If you're getting antsy for your child to hit the ground running, keep in mind that the trajectory of development often does not occur in a linear, entirely predictable way. So if your child took her sweet time walking, then don't expect her to immediately become a rocking runner. Rest assured that her body hasn't taken a break since she first started walking -- her brain, nerves and muscles are still growing and becoming stronger so she can pick up new tricks such as running.
Before your little guy starts cruising at a marathon pace, you'll notice him learning how to use his body in new ways that could signal he may start running soon. When his interest is piqued by going up and down stairs and he masters the ability to bounce, dance, and balance, his big muscle groups are getting stronger and he's readying himself, Dr. Barkin says. Once your bold bub does begin picking up speed, expect his wobbly dashes to lead to a few falls. As you help him steady his wavering gait, giving him verbal instructions adds an extra cognitive component that needs time to develop along with his new motor skills. "Commands such as wait for me or stop there are quite complex, and it will take time before your child can respond to those types of instructions," Dr. Barkin says. So don't expect your little walker to hit the brakes immediately when you tell him to slow down, but it's important to continue to practice giving these directives, especially now that he has the ability to scoot away from you faster.
If your child is still trotting at a snail's pace, take a look at your living environment before you sound the alarms. Ask yourself: Is your child getting enough exercise to feel confident running? Does she feel safe, or are there lots of sharp corners she's encountered while walking about that may make her nervous? And while you may feel high-strung and stressed about your youngster hitting developmental marks, she may be feeling the opposite: chill and relaxed. "Some children are quite happy to take their time," Dr. Barkin says. "They don't feel the need to run and are just really laid-back kids."
Although there are physical attributes that may hinder running, such as being flat-footed or having feet that point inward, they are generally not a cause for concern, Dr. Hamel says. But if you notice any of the issues below, it's a good idea to schedule a conversation with your pediatrician:
- one side of your child's body moves better than or differently from the other
- your child frequently walks on his tippy toes
- your child walks repetitively back and forth in an aimless fashion