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As a parent, I know how exciting it is when your baby first starts to walk. It’s a highly applauded milestone. However, please don’t be tempted to ‘help’ your child to walk by holding their hands or ‘finger-walking’, because the skill of learning to balance upright on his own and to take tentative first steps without your help are actually essential to your baby developing core strength, muscular control, visual-spatial orientation, timing and judging distances, coordination and postural development. As you’ll hear us say repeatedly at GymbaROO – “Don’t be in a hurry for your child to walk, for it is not how early a child walks, but how much is learnt before walking that will influence the development of physical, social and academic well-being.”
Think about it. It is likely that your child will walk for over 80 years. Yet, she has only twelve months in which to get her body, her strength, balance and coordination prepared for the upright posture. So why do we hurry our children to walk? Perhaps it’s a hangover from the past when it was not safe to put a baby down on the ground, and was thus a matter of survival. Today, in stark contrast, our children have the time to learn essential developmental skills in the safety of protected environments.
Why not ‘walk’ children before they walk by themselves?
The temptation to help your child ‘walk’ by holding her hands is a strong one. Really, it does look very cute as she works to put one foot in front of the other aided by the enthusiastic grip of a loved one, however, there are some major advantages in resisting this instinct and allowing your baby get walking without your help:
- When you hold your baby’s hands – usually up in the air as you cannot bend down low enough, your baby doesn’t learn to balance himself. Arms are an essential part of learning to balance when learning to walk. They need to be held wide, out sideways from the body and they need to be free so they can adjust up and down when the body goes out of balance. Think about how you balance when you cross a narrow plank or log. A baby learning to walk needs to do this constantly and needs to practice, practice, practice until he feels secure enough and has developed enough body awareness to use his arms for something else. When you ‘do the balancing for him’ he is getting less practice and will often walk later as he struggles to balance on his own. The same problem arises with the use of devices such as ‘walkers’ (which we strongly advise against) and other ‘walking aids’.
- A little after a baby stats to creep or crawl on all fours, she also learns to walk or ‘cruise’ around the furniture, holding on. This provides practice at learning to balance while in the upright position. The furniture provides stability. With much practice, she eventually reaches across a space and takes a step without holding on. This is how your baby gradually learns to control her own body upright against gravity.
- Finger-walking reduces crawling and creeping opportunities. These earlier movement patterns provide many of the building blocks the brain and body needs, not just for walking, but also for many other later skills, academic, physical and social! Read more here.
- Once you start the finger-walking it may be hard to stop – your baby will want to do it again and again. This is not only back-breaking for you, but also increases your baby’s reliance on you for movement opportunities and one that BTW, is not particularly useful in later life …I mean how often do you walk around as an adult with your arms outstretched over your head?
Walking without assistance also is essential for the development of:
- Muscle tone and control. Think about the amount of muscle strength your baby develops purely by the action of plopping down onto his bottom when he loses balance and then standing up, over and over and over. Those leg muscles and the core muscles of the trunk work hard every time, and this is exactly what the body needs to do to gain the stability and posture required for walking.
- Hand/eye/foot coordination. Every time your baby takes a step on her own she needs to coordinate her arms and legs so that she maintains balance. Legs wide and arms out gives her the balance in the first instance. Gradually over time and with lots of practice, she will narrow the stance of her legs and her arms can come down to their sides, or busily hold a toy or other object.
- Being able to time movement across a space and to judge distance by moving. How far is it? How long will it take me to get there? These are important questions the brain needs to work out, and over time and with practice, it does. When first learning to walk, this is an unknown, and only through practice at his own pace can a child develop this unconscious awareness of time and space.
- Being able to orientate herself visually and being able to learn to judge distances using her eyes. Once again, the question of ‘how far is it’ has to be worked out by a child learning to walk. Can I stay upright for long enough to make it from the coffee table to the couch? The only way I will learn is if I try – on my own.
Learning new skills by themselves is the key to healthy brain development. ‘Learning by doing’ is far more effective than ‘learning by someone else doing it for me’. When you ‘walk’ a baby, you reduce the opportunity for learning to take place, because it’s not your infant doing the balancing, timing and coordination, it’s you. The brain does not learn as quickly or as well when it does not learn by practice, and it needs lots of opportunities and experiences to walk with excellent coordination and good posture. Our role as parents is to provide our babies and children with every opportunity to do so in a safe and secure environment.
Dr Jane Williams (PhD, BMgt, RN(Paeds)) is the Research and Education General Manager for GymbaROO and KindyROO. Dr Williams is one of Australia’s leading experts on baby and child development. More on Dr Williams here.
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