Throughout history, walkers have been thought to improve motor skills for infants as they walk. Today, they are still found in millions of nurseries and homes.
But research shows that any claims that they are good for infants are untrue. Studies as early as the late 1990s proved that walkers are actually detrimental to normal development because they hinder infants’ ability to see their leg movements and associate limb movements with spatial movements.
On top of that, they can be fatal. The cause of at least 30 deaths since 1970 —- assisted infants are inherently dangerous and have no developmental benefit, says the American Association of Pediatric Societies in the United States.
Dorota Sczecpaniak, a pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health Center in Indianapolis, said, “Walkers are very dangerous, and I agree with the AAP’s recommendation to ban them from birth.”
Here’s what you need to know as a parent.
The dangers of infant walkers
Approximately 2,000 children visit U.S. emergency rooms each year for walker-related injuries.
“Ninety percent of walking-related injuries are to the head and neck, with the majority of the rest being to the upper extremities (arms and hands). Bruises and contusions to the scalp and face are common,” Dr. Sczcepaniak explains, and concussions occur in more than 25 percent of cases. “Although fractures occur less frequently, about five percent of walking-related injuries, more than half of these fractures are dangerous skull fractures.”
When walkers first came on the scene in the early 1970s, they were very popular. Parents thought they had finally found a way to give their children something to do while giving busy parents a break.
But shortly after their popularity soared, emergency rooms were filled with concussions, bruises, burns and broken bones, among other injuries. Giving babies the freedom to explore their environment unhindered led to accidents. Falls down stairs, burns from inaccessible hot liquids, and even rolls down the driveway into the street are all fairly common infant toddler accidents.
Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician practicing at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, has been urging parents to be cautious if they choose to allow their children to explore in walkers.
“I think families should consider the significant dangers of using infant walkers in unsafe environments. I also think families should acknowledge that we are more likely to be distracted today than we were 20 years ago. Because of this, we are more likely to protect our infants and toddlers from significant harm by avoiding walkers.”
He encourages parents who choose a toddler to only allow their baby to be present in a completely hazard-free environment. “I let my parents know that in a safe environment (no steps, no sharp corners of tables, no hot liquids, no water, or essentially an open space with four walls and no hazards) the baby walker can be used safely under close supervision.”
Safe alternatives to infant walkers
While infant mobility walkers may initially seem like the gold standard, the risks are not worth the rewards. There are, however, safe alternatives to walking. Stationary play centers or bouncers that provide developmentally appropriate stimulation without the risk of injury are common with mobile walkers.
Woods says: “Parents can use a stationary bouncer for infants and toddlers, and the child can sit/stand in a fabric chair.” . Bouncing and rotating within the play center “will develop a child’s tone, or internal musculature, in their feet, legs, thighs and hips.”
There are tons of baby walkers and jumpers on the market, and choosing one can be difficult. The best sweater baby will have a wide, sturdy base and a safe, age-appropriate toy that can’t be swallowed by a curious infant. Removable fabric seats are also a plus for parents, making cleanup a little easier.
Infant push walkers like VTech’s sit-to-stand learning walker are also an option. Push walkers don’t allow the kind of unrestricted freedom babies enjoy with traditional walkers, and most models allow parents to control the speed at which the wheels move. Keep in mind, however, that any mobility toy should be used under close supervision.
Age is a key factor when considering infant walkers. The infant must be able to sit independently, without a pillow or other support. Putting an infant in a baby jump, walker, or activity center too early may lead to developmental problems and delays.
How to help your baby develop motor skills
To help babies learn these motor skills, Dr. Sczcepaniak recommends lots of tummy time and free crawling and cruising.
“Allow tummy time, crawling, cruising and exploring in a safe environment. For cruisers, (grab the edge of furniture or walls when walking) make sure coffee tables and furniture with sharp edges are not too close.”
Safety is an important consideration when infants begin to move. “Having your child well-protected at home is extremely important to prevent injuries as well as to ensure the safe development of your child.” She also encourages plenty of time outside. “Plan outdoor activities in the grass or on a blanket. Ask family and friends to help keep an eye out for a young child who is constantly exploring for extra supervision.” She urges parents to remember that the age at which children walk depends largely on genetics and not necessarily on the amount of time they spend exercising or bouncing.