When Your Baby Learns to Walk: What’s Typical and What’s Not
All parents await their baby’s first steps. This magical moment is usually reported to occur somewhere around a child’s first birthday, and when it doesn’t, many parents worry that something may be wrong with their child. While it is true that 12 months may be the average age for walking, babies who don’t walk by age 12 months are not necessarily showing any sort of gross motor or developmental delay.
As therapists we typically tell parents that children may walk independently anytime between 9 months and 16 months and still be considered “typically developing”. Often a physical therapist will want to take a look at a child if they are 15-16 months old and not yet walking independently to determine if there is a reason the child has not taken independent steps and may perhaps benefit from therapy to help him along.
Walking is not simply a matter of just balance, muscle strength and coordination. Muscle tone as well as a child’s temperament may also play a role. Children who are active and impulsive may walk early and children who are laid back and easy going may walk late, but that is not always the case. Children who were early walkers may be more accident prone and later walkers may be more cautious, but again this isn’t true across the board. All children are different. Children with high or low muscle tone may have more difficulty with walking and gross motor skills in general.
Once children do begin to walk many parents become concerned about kids whose feet turn outward or inward. Typically this is not a concern and a child’s gait will straighten itself out by around age 3. If your child continues to trip and fall due to feet turning inward/outward then you may wish to consult a physical therapist.
Young children do not develop much of an arch and are relatively flat footed until about the age of 3, which is another reason for kids turning toes inward to help them distribute their weight and balance themselves while walking.
Some children walk on their tip toes (especially kids who spent a lot of time in exersaucers, walkers and jumpers), but again, this is typically not a concern unless a child’s physician or therapist detects tight heel cords and the child cannot physically put their feet down flat or it causes pain.
When young children begin to walk they need what is called a “wide base of support” to help them balance, thus they will walk with arms out and legs apart and feet may be turned inward or outward.
Some ways to help encourage your baby to walk are:
- Let him push toys while standing. Load push toys and carts with phone books or a bag of sugar to keep them from tipping over.
- Wear overalls on your child and gently hold the back as she walks
- Let her walk behind a large exercise ball while you steady it and roll it slowly across the floor
- Hold a broomstick crosswise and let your baby hold on as you knee walk with him
- Limit time in walkers, exersaucers and jumpers to 10-15 minutes a few times a day, as these devices have not been shown to help children walk any sooner and sometimes can develop calf muscles more than quad muscles and contribute to toe walking
- Do not put shoes on babies, so they can feel the input from the floor beneath their feet
- Kneel a foot away from your child with a favorite toy and entice her to step towards you
- Place low furniture close together, such as the coffee table a few feet from the couch to encourage your child to “let go” and take steps between furniture instead of just cruising beside it
If your child is limping or using one side of his or her body differently during walking, is 15-16 months and has not attempted to begin walking or you simply have specific concerns related to your child’s ability to walk or muscle tone then do consult your pediatrician and an early intervention physical therapist right away for help.