Baby walkers: Helpful or Harmful?

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Baby walkers: Helpful or Harmful?

As a parent, you’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting information about baby walkers, leaving you to wonder if they are a good addition to your nursery, or a dangerous one. We’ve done the research and have sifted through the myths to bring you the truth about baby walkers.

What is a Baby Walker?

A baby walker consists of a rigid frame set on wheels, a fabric sling with leg openings for your baby to hang in, and a plastic tray that may contain toys for your child’s entertainment. Baby walkers are generally used by children who are 5 – 15 months old, and they allow a pre-walking (pre-ambulatory) child to move about by pushing his feet against the ground.

Common Misconceptions about Baby Walkers

If you’re like most parents, there has probably been a day when you are home with your child and need a few minutes of hands-free time to take care of a personal or household task. What do you do with your child during that time?

In theory, a baby walker seems like a perfect solution. The baby is contained in the sling, but can move around and has toys to keep busy.  Many parents believe the walker is a safe place to keep their baby entertained while they attend to chores or activities nearby. This couldn’t be further from the truth! A baby walker is not a safe place to leave an unsupervised child. Not only is your child now prematurely mobile in the walker, which may lead to a variety of safety issues (discussed below), but being supported by the sling makes your baby taller than usual, extending their reach to potentially dangerous items.

Another common misconception parents have about baby walkers is that they will help a baby learn to walk. Despite their name, the reality is that time spent in a baby walker may actually cause a delay in your child’s ability to walk (locomotive development).

Safety Concerns

Here’s a scary statistic you probably didn’t know- between 2000 and 2008, 135 baby walker-related injuries were reported by public hospital emergency departments in Victoria alone. The most common injuries associated with baby walker use are head or brain injuries, broken bones, and burns or scalds. Injuries occur most commonly from either falls or access to dangerous items. Below we’ve provided a few examples of how these accidents can happen.

Falls:

  • The walker can fall down stairs
  • Baby walkers can easily tip over on uneven surfaces
  • Older siblings may make a game of bouncing or pushing the walker, leading to a fall

Access to dangerous items:

  • The baby can access cabinets with poisonous items (cleaning supplies)
  • The baby can reach hot drinks, stoves, kettles, irons, heaters, or fireplaces
  • The baby can reach or fall into a pool, bath tub, or toilet

Developmental Concerns

Although putting your child in a baby walker may seem like good way to help them develop their walking skills, there is a lack of evidence to support this notion. In fact, there is evidence to support the opposite idea- that children who use baby walkers may experience a delay in crawling, standing alone, and walking alone. Furthermore, research shows that the amount of baby walker use is related to the extent of the developmental delay, meaning more time spent in a baby walker could result in a greater delay of walking ability.

When your child is spending time in a baby walker, he is missing out on time spent playing on the floor, learning important pre-walking skills, including rolling over, sitting up, and pulling up. While in a baby walker, your baby may also not learn the correct way to move and balance their body. Babies often stand on their toes in baby walkers, which can result in tight muscles and teach a baby to walk on their toes.

Alternatives to Baby Walkers

crawling baby boyAll parents need a few minutes during the day to attend to household or personal responsibilities, but a baby walker should not be used as a baby-sitter. Children need constant supervision when using a baby walker.

There are other ways to keep your child safe and contained to play for a short period of time while you are nearby:

If your baby cannot move around on his own:

  • The floor is the safest place for your baby. Set up a safe area on the floor for your child to enjoy tummy time, learning to roll over and learning to sit up
  • Place your child near soft furniture (lounge) or an activity cube to help them learn to pull-up
  • Use a stationary activity centre for a short period of time

If your baby can move about:

  • Use a playpen to house your child in a safe area
  • Use baby gates and safety devices to block off a safe area for your child to move around freely

Guidelines for Use

Baby walkers were banned in Canada in 2004, and Australia is seeking a similar ban. If you are considering using a baby walker, there are some guidelines to follow for your child’s safety.

Before you buy a baby walker, make sure that the model you are buying (new or second hand) is compliant with the mandatory safety standard based on the US ASTM F977 safety standard for baby walkers. Some of the key safety requirements include:

  • Breaking mechanism to prevent the walker from falling down stairs
  • Tipping resistance to resist tipping over an obstacle or if the child leans out of the walker
  • Labelling to include a warning on leaving the child unattended and a stair hazard warning
  • Some additional guidelines for purchasing a baby walker are below:
  • Chose a walker with an optional “parking brake” mechanism to keep it immobilised if necessary
  • Check that any folding mechanism latches securely and does not collapse once assembled
  • Check that there are no sharp edges or spaces where fingers or toes may be trapped
  • Ensure your child fits properly in the walker

When using the baby walker at home:

  • Never leave your child unattended in the walker
  • Do not leave your child in the walker for more than 15 minutes at a time
  • Only use in a safe and flat area. Block access to stairs, fireplaces, stoves, and all other hazardous items
  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for assembly  and use
  • Given the research, the risks seem to outweigh any benefit of using a baby walker. However, if you do decide to buy one for your child, make sure you follow the guidelines for safe use

References

  1. Australian Physiotherapy Association. Baby Walkers Position Statement (online). 2007 (cited 2013 April 3). Available from: URL link 
  2. Murphy A, Nicholson AJ. Baby Walkers in Europe – Time to Consider a Ban. I Med J. 2011;104(3). (Full text).
  3. NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service. Baby Walkers and Play Centres (online). 2005 (cited 2013 April 3). Available from: URL link
  4. Garrett M, McElroy IS. Locomotor milestones and babywalkers: cross sectional study. BMJ. 2002;324:1494. (Full text).
  5. Product Safety Australia. Baby Walkers (online). 2013 (cited 3 April 2013). Available from: URL link
  6. Shields BJ, Smith GA. Success in the Prevention of Infant Walker-Related Injuries: An Analysis of National Data, 1990-2001. Pediatrics. 2006;117:452-459. (Abstract)
  7.  Australia Competition & Consumer Commission. Safety alert brochure: Baby walkers (online). 2007 (cited 2013 April 3). Available from: URL link
Date Created: May 2, 2013 Date Modified: July 12, 2013

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