Many parents believe that a baby who wears shoes or uses an infant walker will learn to walk sooner. Baby walkers are intended to allow infants, who are able to sit up but not yet walk by themselves, to move around independently. Walkers consist of a cloth seat that supports the baby’s weight but lets his feet touch the floor. The base of the walker is set on wheels, allowing for easy mobility. Infant walkers have become immensely popular, and parents often welcome such a simple form of entertainment and exercise for their child. However, studies have shown that infant walkers can be dangerous. Furthermore, no studies have found that walkers help children learn to walk sooner, and some have even found that using a walker appears to hinder proper development.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
Putting a baby in shoes at an early age will not encourage him to walk sooner. In fact, keeping a baby barefoot helps strengthen foot muscles and promotes balance. Walkers also interfere with the natural progression of learning to sit, crawl, stand, and then walk. The majority of chiropractors oppose the use of baby walkers because of the long-term spinal implications that result from skipping such steps. Also, a baby who sits in an infant walker cannot see his feet because of the wide tray. This may impede coordination because the baby does not get visual feedback as he is learning how to walk.
Various studies have compared the physical and mental development of infants who use baby walkers to that of infants who do not. Many studies have found that infants who used baby walkers actually sat, crawled, and walked later than those who did not. Walker-experienced infants also scored lower on Bayley scales of mental and motor development (an infant developmental scale popular among researchers). A few studies found no difference between the onset of walking among walker users and nonusers. Regardless, no studies have shown that infant walkers help children to walk sooner than they would if they didn’t use a walker.
Risks of Walker Use
The risks associated with using walkers outweigh the potential benefits. In 2004, the Canadian government banned baby walkers. In the US, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been asking for a ban since 1995. In 1997, safety measures were added to protect babies from falling down stairs. While this has significantly reduced the number of injuries, there were still over 3,000 injuries in 2003.
Walkers can pinch fingers and toes, tip over, collapse, fall into water, plunge down stairs, knock over baby gates, gather speed quickly (up to three feet per second), and make it easier for a baby to reach higher objects that could be dangerous (such as a hot cup of coffee, or a heavy or breakable object on a shelf). Most walker-related injuries occur when adults are supervising the baby in the walker.
Evidence for the Health Claim
No known studies support the claim that a baby who wears shoes or uses an infant walker will learn to walk sooner.
Parents use infant walkers for a variety of reasons, including keeping an infant entertained, providing a means of exercise, and encouraging mobility and early walking. However, research has not found a connection between infant walkers and early walking. In fact, the opposite may be true! Because there are no clear developmental advantages to infant walkers, and because the injury rate is so high, the AAP urges parents not to use baby walkers. Encouraging early walking by having a baby wear shoes is not recommended either, as this may hinder proper muscle development. Allowing infants to sit, crawl, and walk on their own and at their own pace is the best way to promote coordination and walking skill.