Watching your baby make her first steps is one of the most amazing experiences parents can have.
Plenty of unstructured play and freedom of movement in the months before will be the best preparation for her gross motor skills development.
Our fast-paced lives make us rush everything these days. During pregnancy our friends and family ask us when the baby will be born; once the baby arrives, they ask whether she’s smiled yet, slept through the night, rolled over, and so on. The expectations that our baby needs to achieve milestones in the conventional timeline can put any parent under stress and take away the enjoyment of a parent-baby relationship.
Parenting books and the internet lay down the schedule of the skills your baby should be able to gain at each stage of development. When it comes to the achievement of gross motor skills, the recommendations are rather unyielding: expect the baby to roll over at four months, sit up at six to eight months, crawl by nine to 11 months. So what if your baby hasn’t been able to roll over at four months, sit up at six and crawl at nine months? You try to advance the moment when she can walk just to prove those experts wrong! But no matter how eager you are to see your baby making her first steps, the best you can do is to wait. Trust your baby to walk when she’s ready, and by doing so encourage her mental and physical awareness.
Before your baby learns to take her first independent steps, her body needs to go through a few phases – the feet need to be able to bear her body weight; she needs to gain head and neck control; strengthen the trunk muscles and, finally, achieve upper body balance. Your role is to assist and stimulate her development to help her progress at her own innate pace.
Lately, development experts increasingly agree that encouraging a baby to crawl is the best thing parents can do to help her learn to walk. More than any other activity, crawling strengthens the neck muscles making the shoulder girdle stable, helps build strong arms and back muscles, which in the future will enable her to stand up and maintain balance. Crawling also develops exploration skills. The more the baby is interested in her surroundings, the more stimulus she has to crawl and later walk. Her physical and cognitive development work together, hence with every move she makes her brain feeds off the information, receiving important messages about the shape and size of objects, their texture and the distance to them.
Not every baby learns to crawl. Some forego crawling in favour of shuffling their bottoms on the floor; some skip crawling altogether, attempt to stand up by holding on to furniture and then try their luck at walking. At this stage it is important that you sit back and observe. Try not to hasten the process by taking the baby by her arms to walk her. This will not bring forward the onset of walking, and will not help with balance. Babies are very fond of repetition, so if you walk the baby once, they will most likely want to do it again and again. Not only does this create a dependence on an adult for body balancing, it makes a habit of an activity that the baby will likely be much more interested in continuing (and doing far more often) than we are. Those babies who are not walked, or otherwise positioned, never ask to be.
Transitional postures, like rolling over, sitting or crawling, are building blocks, each one having a valuable developmental purpose. When we, even subtly, nudge our child to sit or walk, we believe we are helping, but the baby ends up losing out on experiencing a healthier developmental process, which includes the wide array of naturally strength-building postures.
In the last couple of decades baby play materials, toys and equipment became more sophisticated, offering a wider variety of textures, colours and visual images. For the moving baby there appeared numerous positioning devices, including rockers, baby walkers and bouncers.
Although you might think it’s always a good sign that your baby smiles when you sit her into her bouncer, the use of such equipment for long periods restricts your baby’s natural movement and inhibits her motor development. Various sitting equipment supports the child and does not require her to make any postural adjustments in response to movement. Professor Doreen Bartlett of the University of Western Ontario specialises in infant early motor development. Her study found that babies who spent on average between 40 to 60 minutes a day in different types of baby equipment (jolly jumper, walker, exersaucer, infant seat) scored lower on infant motor development than those who spent little or no time in play equipment. “The main concern about overuse of positioning equipment is that it interferes with an infant’s opportunity for exploration, a necessary condition of motor development including the acquisition of independent walking. Healthy infants can manage some degree of deprivation, but, as a general guideline, less ‘containment’ is best”, says Professor Bartlett.
Babies who come from countries with a lower economic status often learn to walk sooner than British babies. Russian parenting sources say that a typically developing baby learns to walk around 10-13 months. This could be because an average family cannot afford various play equipment, hence the infant will spend time acquiring and practising the skills naturally.
Paediatric research has also shown the use of baby walkers is associated with a delay in normal walking, standing and crawling. This is because baby walkers encourage joints to take load earlier than intended. “Early use of a baby walker or jolly jumper can, in some children, increase muscle tone in the lower legs and later possibly encourage a toe walking gait pattern,” says Professor Barbara Resseque of the Department of Pediatrics of New York College of Podiatric Medicine. “Toe walking gait means that a child walks on the balls of her feet and does not make heel contact during walking. A typical beginner walker should make full foot contact.”
While learning to walk babies’ feet undergo a big change: the often curled up toes straighten; the feet start losing that abundant layer of fat tissue at the bottom which makes more than 95 per cent of babies’ feet flat. However, it will take up to eight years, and sometimes longer, for the process of transformation from the flexible cartilage bone tissue of an infant into an adult bone structure. Meanwhile, parents should be aware of potential injuries to the foot from badly fitting or poor-quality footwear.
During the first year the baby’s foot is particularly vulnerable to injury and deformity, which may happen because of restrictive or ill-fitting socks and clothing. Your baby cannot tell you her all-in-one suit is too tight, or that she’s outgrown her winter booties, so as soon as you see even a slight restriction, change it for the next size up.
Walking is one of the major skills your baby will learn. By not rushing her innate pace, you will let her master gross motor skills naturally; and by giving her plenty of freedom in play and movement you will best stimulate her physical and cognitive development.
Choosing your baby’s footwear:
• The UK’s Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists recommends that pre-walking babies and crawlers only need booties to keep their feet warm; otherwise buy special pre-walking shoes that do not bind the baby’s feet.
• A study published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research in 2011, found that children wearing shoes walk faster by taking longer steps with greater ankle and knee motion compared to children who walk barefoot. Hence, the authors advise that children’s shoes should be made based on the barefoot model with soft leather or natural fabric uppers, flexible outsole and without a lot of interior cushioning.
• Leather shoes take on the shape of the foot, so you should never hand them down to another child for whom that shape may be unsuitable and may even cause harm.
• With more than 250,000 sweat glands in each foot, your baby needs to wear shoes that are made of breathable material; leather is the best, as it allows the air and moisture out.
• The UK’s Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists advises against kids’ trainers, explaining that most kids’ trainers are often just ‘shrunk down’ versions of adults’ shoes. As these shoes don’t take into account the differences between kids’ feet and adults’ feet, they can be of a wrong shape for your child’s feet, thus giving them a potential deformity.