Waiting to Walk

Why do some toddlers take their time before taking their first steps?

Sure, it's thrilling when your baby sits up by herself or crawls for the first time. For a real showstopper, though, nothing beats that first wobbly attempt at walking. So when other tots her age are running wild and your child has yet to take a single step, it's natural to feel a little impatient. You tell yourself, "She'll walk any day now." But if more time passes and she's still not making strides, you might begin to worry. When are your concerns justified? Is late walking a sign of trouble down the road? Read on to find out and to help your toddler put her best foot forward.

Worry #1: Every other kid in our playgroup is walking, but my child seems

perfectly happy to crawl.Above all, remember: This isn't a competition. Lots of factors affect the timing of first steps, from heredity to body size. And though half of all kids are toddling by their first birthday, most pediatricians don't consider a child to be a late walker until he's 15 months old. Even then, one in ten children takes his first steps between 15 and 18 months. "Every milestone has a range, and for walking, the healthy range is very wide," says Martin Stein, M.D., director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of San Diego.

Worry #2: Late walking means she'll have serious developmental problems.It's natural to fear the worst. But if your little one has met her other milestones, such as turning over and pushing up into a crawl, don't sweat a walking lag. "Ask yourself, 'Has there been an ongoing pattern of delays?'" says Dale Ulrich, Ph.D., a professor of movement science at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. If so, or if your child isn't walking by 15 or 16 months, talk to your pediatrician. She'll want to rule out conditions such as poor muscle tone, hip displacement, and cerebral palsy. "These are all unusual problems," says Gay Girolami, executive director of the Pathways Center, a not-for-profit treatment facility for children with special needs, in Glenview, Illinois. Still, if your child is already 15 months old, don't take a wait-and-see attitude, Girolami advises.

Worry #3: He'll turn out to be a poor athlete.

Good news for soccer-moms-in-training: "There's no connection between how successful a child will be as an athlete and how early he learned to walk," says Girolami, a pediatric physical therapist. "Motivation, practice, and, to some degree, body type are what count the most in sports." Similarly, research suggests that there's no link between late walking and the eventual IQ of a child with otherwise typical physical, linguistic, and social development.

Worry #4: She's just plain lazy.Your tot doesn't know the meaning of the word lazy. Some 1-year-olds are simply fascinated by their environment. Others are

focused on their fine motor skills, and they're busy putting shapes in the shape sorter.

What's more, your baby could be prepping for her big debut without your noticing. She could be building her strength, learning to rotate her trunk, or planning her next move. "She has to figure out how to keep her balance, how high to lift her feet, and even how to adjust to slippery floors," Girolami says.

Worry #5: Not only is he a late walker, but he's also never crawled.About 7 percent of all kids take their first steps without ever crawling. Many of these babies scoot forward or backward; some pull themselves across the floor. One theory suggests that noncrawlers tend to walk later than crawlers do because they don't gain upper-body strength as fast. However, the jury is still out on this notion. Contact your pediatrician if your 1-year-old isn't mobile at all, or if you've seen backsliding instead of progress.

Worry #6: We haven't spent enough time teaching our child to take steps.Don't pressure yourself. When pediatricians say, "Your baby will walk when she's ready," they mean it. Still, a little encouragement goes a long way. Here's how you can help.

  • Rise and shine. Gently support your child from behind as he places his hands on a low surface and pulls himself up to a standing position. Or put his favorite toy out of his reach on the far end of a couch, so he can support himself as he retrieves it. Cheer his efforts.
  • Get pushy. Give your child an empty waist-high box or a lightweight child's chair that she can push around and hang on to for balance.
  • Let her roam. Don't plunk your toddler into a stationary activity center and keep her there for long stretches. Two 15-minute sessions a day are plenty. Avoid walkers altogether.
  • Make it fun. Turn practice into a game; clap and tell him, "You did it!" Most important, try not to dwell on the milestone date. Instead, appreciate his relative lack of mobility while you can. Remember, when he's finally walking, you'll be chasing right behind.

Choose the Right Shoes:Your baby doesn't need shoes until he can walk, according to Arnold Ravick, D.P.M., a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. At that point, here's what you'll want.

  • A perfect fit. The heel should be snug—not too tight or too loose. The toe should offer 1/2 inch of wiggle room.
  • A flexible shoe. The sole should give when you bend it, but not so much that you can fold it in half. Your tot may trip in stiff or thick-soled shoes.
  • A breathable material. Leather or canvas moves with the feet; plastic doesn't.
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