In the ’80s and ’90s baby walkers were a staple on baby registries, but they are much older than that. We see evidence of archaic baby walkers as early as the 15th century as parents look for tools to help baby learn to walk. But in recent history, baby walkers have come under fire, with many experts calling them dangerous and some countries—like Canada—going so far as to ban them!
So what’s the deal? Are baby walkers bad?
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about baby walkers, including:
- What baby walkers are, and what they’re used for
- The safety issues and developmental issues associated with these devices
- Plus, better choices for optimal development and safety
What Are Baby Walkers?
Baby walkers are devices that babies (and toddlers) can use to walk before they are able to walk on their own.
Over the time baby walkers have gone by many names, including go-cart, standing stool, baby runners, walking stools, and trainers. During the 17th century, it was thought that baby walkers helped baby be upright “both physically and morally.”
Today these walking devices are usually made of hard plastic, with wheels on the bottom.
Another kind of device is a stationary baby walker (the same design, but they only go in a circle or don’t move at all). See an example here.
Are Baby Walkers Safe?
While it’s understandable to want to use a baby walker—many babies do seem to love them and it helps free up mom or dad hands—the truth is baby walkers are not safe. Here’s why:
Baby walkers increase the chance of injury
These devices move very fast, faster than a parent can react, and babies can fall down steps, pinch fingers, and reach for things that they may not otherwise be able to reach. Between 1990 and 2014 there were an average of 230,000 injuries due to walkers, with most injuries being head trauma. Even with newer safety standards, there are still about 2,100 baby walker-related trips to the ER each year.
Other common injuries include:
- Head bumps and bruises (from falling down stairs or pulling items off of counters onto themselves)
- Burns and poisoning (from accessing places baby shouldn’t go)
- Pinched fingers or toes
- Drowning from falling into a toilet or pool
- Suffocation from neck being compressed against the feeding tray (the most rare of the injuries)
In 1994, stationary baby walkers were introduced, decreasing the amount of injuries each year. And in 1997, new safety standards made them safer, decreasing injuries by 76 percent from 1990 to 2001. (source)
While this is a good improvement in safety, experts say there are still real dangers.
“Walkers are unsafe,” pediatrician Gary Smith said in an interview with ABC News. “Children are still being injured in them. There should be a ban on the sale and manufacture of walkers.”
Baby walkers delay mental and motor development
Even if these devices were safe, there is evidence that they don’t actually help baby learn to walk properly. In fact, there’s evidence that walkers may actually delay development.
One study suggests babies who use walkers learn to walk later than those who don’t use walkers. Another study showed similar results: Researchers noted babies who used walkers sat, crawled, and walked later than a control group that didn’t use baby walkers. Infants who used walkers also scored lower on Bayley scales of mental and motor development.
But why would this delay development? Research suggests the delay in motor development can be attributed to the fact that baby can’t see his legs. Being able to see his own limbs shows baby what type of movement helped him achieve his goal.
Baby walkers hinder muscle development
It’s exciting to watch baby zoom around with a different perspective of the world, but forcing baby into a new position can be problematic for muscle development.
Walkers make it hard for baby to develop all of the muscles she needs to ultimately walk on her own. Time spent in these contraptions is time baby isn’t spending doing tummy time, or trying to sit up, crawl, or pull up—all activities that help prepare the body for walking. (source)
According to Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, baby walkers strengthen the lower legs but not the upper legs and hips, which are essential for walking, and satisfy baby’s desire to move across the floor, making them less likely to try crawling.
What’s more? Pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler discovered that babies who developed naturally (i.e. weren’t placed in containers like walkers) were stronger, more stable, and more confident in their movements.
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Are Baby Walkers Banned?
Though the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) has called for a ban in the U.S., you can still buy baby walkers in the U.S.
Walkers are, however, banned in Canada. In 2004, our northern neighbors became the first country to ban them. You can get a fine of up to $100,000 and six months of jail time (!) for selling these devices in Canada. (source)
So… Are There Any Safer Alternatives?
If baby walkers aren’t safe, what is?
Of course, activity mats or just blankets on the floor allow baby to explore their surroundings while strengthening their entire body.
Baby Activity Mat
If you need to do some chores around the house, you can put baby in a baby carrier as a safe, contained place.
Playpens filled with a few toys or swings are other alternatives that can help you while cooking dinner or doing another activity where you need baby to be safe and contained. Do know that all of these activities still require parental supervision, but experts say these options provide many of the benefits parents are looking for from baby walkers without the same serious problems.
Baby Play Pen
The key is not to put baby in these devices for long stretches of time as this can also affect motor development. It is also not safe to place baby in these devices for nap time (source).
Standing walkers (i.e. a walker that does not contain a baby in a seat) can be a good option for helping your baby practice walking. Unlike the rolling baby walkers, these sit-to-stand walkers allow your baby to see their legs, to use all of the muscles in their feet, and — most importantly — plop down on their bottom, which is an important part of the learning process! These types of walkers often feature locking or adjustable wheels so you can control how fast your baby toddles with the walker. Keep in mind, when baby is using this device, he will still require close supervision as there is a potential to fall down stairs, or go too fast.
ExerSaucers or bouncy walkers are another option to use in place of a baby walker. Because there are no wheels, your baby cannot accidentally walk or wheel to dangerous areas like the tops of stairwells. Even though baby is stationary, ExerSaucers should not replace quality time on the floor — cruising between furniture pieces or trying to step while holding your hands. Mobility experts recommend no more than two 15-20 minute sessions in a device like this per day.
With a safe place to practice what baby can already do on his own and strengthen muscles he needs for the next developmental milestone, he’ll begin walking before you know it. Just be patient and encouraging!
How About You?
When did your baby learn how to walk? We’d love to hear any stories you may have!