Probably no milestone is as chock-full of thrills, chills, and excitement as your baby's first steps. Between 13 and 15 months, "all of your child's energy will be focused on taking those first unsupported steps," says DeAnn Davies, a child development specialist at Healthy Steps, a pediatric care program, in Phoenix. "You might notice that your child isn't learning new words at the same rate, for instance, because she's so busy trying to master walking."
Just imagine balancing on a tightrope without a net, with little ability to stop, start, or change direction. Carrying on a conversation would be the last thing on your mind! In fact, walking requires such enormous complexity of balance and coordination, "your toddler really can't do anything else and may not even be able to listen if you're talking to him," says Karen Carter, MD, a developmental pediatrician at the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center, in Augusta. Every child goes through the same sequence of stages in learning to walk. First, your child pulls to stand on whatever looks handy -- the coffee table, crib rail, or couch will do nicely as her first balance beam. Now she's on cruise control. Her fingers will do the walking first, as she slides both hands along whatever's supporting her, using mostly the weight of her arms to support her body. Soon, your child will rise to the rank of expert cruiser, as she discovers that she can stand back from her support with arms outstretched. This move places more of her weight on her legs. Instead of sliding both hands together, she'll be confident enough to cross hand over hand; feet eventually follow, as beginning walkers move from sliding their feet to actually picking them up off the ground and balancing on them.
When she can rely on just one hand and one foot to support her, she'll be ready to cross small gaps between safe handholds. She won't yet release one support unless she can reach another, but she'll crank up her cruising speed and delight in moving from couch to table to Dad's pant leg, improving coordination as she learns how to judge distances and recognize objects from this new perspective.
When will she walk unsupported? Depending on temperament, body build, gender, and family environment, babies vary from taking just a few days to several weeks as they transform into true bipeds. For instance, more cautious children may rely on this supported cruising for weeks or even months; occasionally a sudden fall or unexpected change in daily routine may even cause them to revert to crawling again as they reconsider their moves. (Don't worry: the sequence from standing to cruising to walking will take less time on her second go-round.)"Overall, we'd want to refer a baby for evaluation if he isn't walking by 16 months, to assess his motor skills," says Davies.
No matter when your baby takes those first steps toward independence, it will probably be because she's forgotten that she's doing something risky. "She'll step away from whatever she's holding on to because she's so motivated by a toy she wants that she'll forget she might fall," says Davies. Then she'll likely be so astonished by her own victory that she'll want to try it again.
Between 13 and 15 months, your baby lives in the Right Here and Right Now. He is so determined to quench his own curiosity that he can't see past his own passions. As a result, he may appear endlessly defiant. You tell him no every time he climbs onto the couch to get to the windowsill full of plants, intent on excavating dirt, but he does it anyway. You tell him no when he wants a cookie and you want him to eat his banana instead, but he throws the banana on the floor and shakes his head, then grins at the mess he's made.
You're not the only one saying no. It's probably your toddler's favorite word. After all, Davies point out, he's heard it a lot in his short lifetime, it's easier to say than "yes," and it makes him feel like he's in control. What appears to be defiance is really just a matter of your baby's becoming more mobile and self-aware. He is discovering his own likes and dislikes and testing the limits of what you will and won't let him do. He isn't old enough to have the memory, the attention span, or the impulse control to stay away from the stereo or to remember that cookies are eaten only after lunch.
"At this age, babies are in love with the world. They want to know how everything works," says Davies. "Now that your baby is walking, he is living life with gusto."
Sign language may help babies between 13 and 15 months communicate, say experts. Because babies learn to coordinate their large muscles before refining small-muscle control, learning how to move their head or make a hand sign for a word is easier for them at this age than combining the intricate motions of tongue, lips, and jaw to say new words. "We see children demonstrating less frustration, and having fewer tantrums, if parents can teach them a few simple signs for words," notes DeAnn Davies, a child development specialist and coordinator at Healthy Steps, in Phoenix.
Although there are standardized programs that teach baby sign language, most parents can easily make up their own signs. Just choose simple gestures and be sure that the adults are consistent in pairing the sign with the word. For instance, you can teach your child to touch his hand to his mouth when he wants to say "eat," and you can say, "Eat? Okay!"
Learning social niceties like sharing toys and not biting your best friend are huge developmental milestones that many children don't conquer until preschool. Yet even if he's playing side by side with another toddler and doesn't seem to be actively engaged with him -- a type of interaction that experts dub parallel play -- your toddler is learning something from the interaction. Watch two toddlers playing in the same room, and you'll notice that they often glance in one another's direction and imitate each other's antics. If such a playdate breaks down and one child scratches, bites, or hits, it doesn't mean that child is mean or a lousy friend. It's just a sign that he's overwhelmed and has lost control. That's why it's vital to supervise and intervene if necessary, and to be sure there are enough toys to go around. (It's wise to have doubles of popular toys.)
Here's a question that's sure to come up at your next well-baby visit: Is your baby still drinking from a bottle?
In general, pediatricians really want kids off the bottle by 15 months (if not sooner). Some parents find it hard to let go of this last vestige of babyhood, especially if their child is really attached to it. But it's going to be easier to wean him now than it will be as he approaches 2. Plus toddlers who are still drinking milk in a bottle tend to drink more milk than they need to -- spoiling their appetite for solids. Calcium is important for growing bones, but kids this age need just 16 ounces of milk a day.
Holly Robinson lives outside of Boston with her three children.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2007.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.