Will Baby Walkers, Exersaucers and Jumpers Help My Baby Learn to Walk?
Advice from the experts
Photo courtesy of Nasimi Babaev/Shutterstock.com
The first year of a baby’s life is full of milestones. As parents, you anxiously await each new skill, sound and experience. You want to do your best to help your baby grow and develop. With this in mind, you might search out the latest and greatest toys and devices to help your baby achieve the next skill.
As physical therapists, we are often asked if using a walker, exersaucer or jumper will help your baby learn to walk. A quick search on the internet shows why parents may be confused when trying to answer this question.
Anyone shopping for infant equipment will quickly see the benefits being shared among parents about these devices. Baby walkers promise to encourage first steps and help your baby develop new motor skills. Exersaucers are marketed to parents as a safe way to contain and entertain infants, especially when parents are leery of using walkers. They offer a variety of toys connected to the tray, allowing your baby to have fun and experience different sensory information while spending time in a safe, contained and upright position. Jumpers also offer your baby the opportunity to bounce and have fun while contained, oftentimes taking up less space than an exersaucer or baby walker. At first glance, all of these seem like enjoyable and appropriate opportunities for your baby, but there is more to these devices than fun and entertainment.
Multiple groups in the U.S., including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, recommend against the use of baby walkers. Canada banned walkers altogether in 2007. These calls came after many babies were injured while spending time in walkers.
In the U.S., walkers now have voluntary design standards, including the inability to fit through standard doorways and features designed to stop them at the edge of a step. These features were added as part of a direct response to numerous documented incidents of babies falling down stairs while in a walker. These falls often result in greater injuries than those experienced by babies falling down stairs without being in a walker. In addition to falling, infants in walkers have been injured by pulling large or hot items down onto themselves as their curious hands are more able to reach previously out-of-the-way surfaces.
Clever marketing tells parents that spending time in a walker or exersaucer will help their infant learn to stand and walk. Research shows that spending time in a baby walker may actually delay the start of independent walking by two to three weeks, and that infants who spend more time in walkers have a greater percentage of delay than those who spend less time in one.
Babies learn to walk by strengthening their muscles and progressing through various developmental skills. As they spend time on their back, belly and side — and spend time sitting — they develop the muscles in their neck, trunk and hips. This prepares them to support their body in a standing position without a parent’s or guardian’s help.
Before they can walk, babies must be able to stand on their own. When babies are placed in a walker, exersaucer or jumper before they have developed adequate control of their muscles, they may not be able to support all of the parts of their body in the proper position. Frequently, babies who are upright in a walker or exersaucer move their hips forward and their upper body behind their hips, putting weight through the front of their foot or their toes, rather than on the whole foot. This positioning is related to their lack of control of their hip, back and belly muscles, as well as the limited support they are getting from the device. With this poor alignment, babies may develop abnormal ways of moving, making it more difficult to learn to walk when they are taken out of the equipment.
Limited Sensory Experience
Babies rely on all of their senses to help them understand how to move their bodies. Baby walkers and exersaucers usually have a tray filled with exciting toys. This tray blocks babies from seeing their feet. Without having the visual information about their legs and feet, babies are at a disadvantage as they try to learn how to successfully move their body.
In addition to lacking this visual information, exersaucers and walkers limit babies’ development of their balance responses and postural control. When infants stand with the support of an adult, they make small changes to their position all the time. Each time their position changes, they learn from this experience and develop a sense of how to position their body to be most stable. They develop responses that help them catch themselves when they start to feel off-balance. In a walker, exersaucer or jumper, babies do not have to make these corrections. The device holds them in place and, when they do move out of position, it does not give them the information they need to try to fix the problem.
One of the biggest inherent risks of any equipment is using it too much. If babies are spending time in a walker, exersaucer or jumper, they are not spending that time in an uncontained position where they can strengthen their muscles and explore the environment around them. If they are spending time in all of these devices, the time they are spending uncontained and exploring is even more limited. When your baby plays with you, the interaction you provide helps stimulate and challenge him.
If you are not there entertaining your baby, he may have to work even harder to figure out how to reach his toys or interact with the things around him. These challenges help your baby learn in different ways, and encourage his gross motor development in a way that does not happen when all of his toys are on a tray in front of him.
At the end of the day, only you can decide what is best for your baby. While some babies may spend time in equipment and seem to move and develop without any trouble, others may have more difficulty down the road. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of these devices gives you the knowledge you need to make the best decision for you and your baby.
Remember: Babies learn by having a variety of opportunities and experiences. Giving your baby lots of floortime to explore her environment, strengthen her muscles, and refine her movements will help set a solid foundation that will have her up and walking before you know it.
Rebecca Quinones and Rachel Gandy are founders of Babies On The MOVE, a Cary-based organization committed to helping children excel in motor development with in-home pediatric physical therapy and community-based infant movement classes for all abilities. Learn more about their services at babiesonthemoverdu.com.