THE WAY BABIES LEARN TO WALK
Every parent is extremely happy and proud of their baby when she learns to walk. Of course other achievements make us happy as well, but walking, talking and reading are extra special.
Some babies are born with illnesses that cause weakness, tightness and other challenges that make it very difficult for them to learn to walk.
For me, as a pediatric physical therapist, there is only one goal with every baby that I work with. That is; teach to them walk. I dedicated my life to learn as much as I can to be able to help as much as I can babies walk.
This page is a compilation of my dedication (or obsession?) to walking.
It is an evolving page. It is updated with new information as I come across it.
Every baby's ultimate goal is waking. Of course it is not a conscious goal like we adults have. It is natures goal and we see the signs of the importance of walking very early.
One of these signs are reflexes. Newborn babies are born with many reflexes.
Reflexes are involuntary and uncontrolled movements. They are movements that just happen and babies have no control over them.
One example is the breathing reflex. A baby is born and starts breathing on his own without anybody teaching him how. It is a reflex that stays present throughout life, we adults still have the breathing reflex.
There are many reflexes that the baby is born with but they disappear over time because she develops conscious actions and movements instead of them.
Here is an example of a reflex that is very important in the first months. Babies are born with the rooting reflex. They will turn their head and open their mouth if they feel something soft like a nipple or a cloth/finger touching their cheeks.
The rooting reflex disappears by 4 months of age. By then babies recognize the breast or the bottle and will consciously control their head and mouth movements towards them.
Several reflexes are related to standing and walking. If the baby is held in a certain position and is touched in certain place, he will be triggered to stand or step.
The reflexes look like a baby is stepping or standing, however if the reflex is not triggered the baby can not voluntarily perform the same action nor can she stop the reflex if it is triggered.
The stepping reflex makes the baby take steps if the baby is held in the standing upright position and the soles of his feet touch the table/bed.
This reflex is already present at 3 months gestational age and in newborns. The stepping reflex slowly fades and disappears by 2 months of age.
These two and some other reflexes combined are what help newborns to amaze us with the breast crawl.
When the baby is placed on moms belly he will crawl up and find his mothers breast to nurse.
In this video we can see how the baby is triggered by his own hand to turn his head, open his mouth and suck on his hand, fingers and inch himself up toward his mothers breasts.
At 7 minutes and 32 seconds the baby lifts his head, pushes up and finds his mothers nipple to nurse all due to reflexes he was born with.
This 9+ minutes video shows the process of the Breastcrawl. The baby makes his final move at 7:32.
We can see these reflexes are powerful and govern most of our newborns movements. As the baby develops with the aid of the reflexes the baby will learn to move voluntarily and the reflexes will be overridden with the learned movements.
Head control is the basic skill that the baby needs to master for her to learn to walk and to learn all the prerequisites like rolling, crawling sitting, standing. Learning to hold her head starts on the first day of her life and evolves throughout life.
Your baby holds her head with a somewhat different muscles pattern laying on her belly, or in sitting, or when crawling. She needs to practice and be very good at head control in all positions for her to learn to walk well.
I have dedicated a blog to head control, you can read it here.
Rolling in both directions- pushing up on straight arms on the belly - “swimming on the floor” - sitting - getting into sitting or crawling position and crawling are the major milestones that need to be mastered by your baby before she can walk.
Having said that we all know that some babies skip crawling and still can learn to walk.
As a physical therapist, I have witnessed many children learning to walk despite missing the prerequisite skills, having weaknesses, tightness's, and other difficulties. We, humans, are amazing creatures and your baby is the next miracle this world needs!
Years ago I had the privilege to work with a toddler who miraculously learned walking all by herself despite the fact that she could not get up from the floor without help. The little girl would be stuck laying on the floor if nobody could help her up into sitting or standing.
However, if she was stood up by her parents, she walked so well that no one could see any difficulties. Usually, if the child can not learn to get up into sitting or pull to stand by herself, she would need a therapists to help her learn to walk.
Keep your baby on the floor a lot so she can develop all her gross motor skills the best and fastest way. However, do not put her on the hard floor directly, it is too hard. Use a mattress topper to help her be safe and be brave. Here is the mattress topper I recommend to the parents I work with:
"Swimming on the floor" is an essential milestone in the walking sequence. Generally you will not find this in the milestone books since this skill does not look functional.
However, I have witnessed many babies who are missing this skill will have great difficulties keeping their backs and knees straight in a standing position.
While laying on her belly your baby will start to lift her arms and legs in the air and move them around. She will look like she is swimming on the floor. This is a crucial ability your baby needs to perfect to assist her in proper walking.
The muscles in her back, neck, shoulders, buttocks, arms and legs are all synchronizing to perform "swimming on the floor". It is a complex and physically difficult movement and yet your baby by the end of the 5th or 6th month will be super good at it.
Look for the emergence of the skill around 5 months of age and nurture it to develop into a strong kicking session.
With the aid of the reflexes, your baby will start to weight bear aka stand by 4 months of age.
When you hold your baby by her trunk or arms and she feels the ground the baby will straighten her legs. The legs will be very stiff and you could feel she is holding up her weight.
In the begging, you have to hold your baby under her shoulders for her to be able to stand.
You will know that your baby is getting stronger because you will notice that you can hold her lower and lower. By the age of 7 months, you can hold your baby by her pelvis.
Interestingly, the same stiffness in the legs re-appears when the baby learns to stand by himself holding onto something and again when he learns to stand without holding on.
Your baby will start to bounce around 7 months of age when you hold her in a standing position. This is a very important practice for your baby. Bouncing helps him develop trunk, hip and leg muscles that will be used while walking.
Bouncing starts with a small knee bend. As the baby gets stronger, she will bend her knees more, eventually squatting all the way down.
Bouncing lasts several months, and we see that babies will practice bouncing even when they already learned walking.
Squatting ad standing up from squatting is one of the best exercises for a toddler, a child and even for adults.
Babies start pulling themselves up into standing at around 7-9 months of age. Most parents experience this amazing achievement when their baby stands up holding onto them.
Pulling to stand is a very complex motor planning skill. It requires lots of thinking and precise execution for a baby to pull himself up into a standing position.
When he pulls to stand, he activates his muscles to be used in this new position. This is the stage when his muscles will practice the ins and outs of standing and eventually walking.
In the first few weeks, your baby will stand halfway bent, far away from the surface he is holding onto. Slowly, with practice, he will be able to stand straighter and straighter. His muscles will gain better control and become stronger the more he pulls himself up into standing.
The legs will be stiff, just like they were when the baby started weight bearing. Your baby will not know how to bend his knees or sit down if he gets tired he will cry or fall backward.
Make sure to rescue him quickly when he cries in a standing position in his crib to avoid any injuries or bad experiences.
When your baby starts standing more than sitting she would benefit from the help of a good supporting shoe.
Not all babies need a shoe but a lot of them would definitely benefit from wearing a shoe while learning to stand and walk.
The debate of barefoot vs shoe is a good debate and I have my own opinion about it. You can read my blog here. (coming soon)
Here is the shoe I recommend to the parents I work with:
As she perfects her pull to stand, bouncing, dancing and stepping skills we start to see braveness in her moves.
She will pull to stand in a variety of places, not only where she can hold on well. She will pull to stand faster and will start turning around while in transition, maybe even letting go with one hand.
When she is standing at a surface where she can rest her chest against it she will start to let go and play while standing.
When she is bouncing, she will bend deeper and eventually will start to let go with one hand. She might even take an accidental step while bouncing or dancing.
Standing without holding on or leaning onto anything is the next step.
Your baby will start standing holding on with one hand more often.
Eventually, first unexpectedly, soon on purpose he will let go of the supporting couch or table. In the beginning, he will be surprised by the new experience. He might even get scared. Your best approach is not to surprise or scare him even more with a happy excited hurrah or clapping.
His “no support stand” starts with a brief second and slowly develops into a half a minute to few minute skill.
Independent standing is a major milestone in learning to walk. For your baby to walk independently, he needs to learn to take independent steps but most importantly, he needs to be able to stop himself when walking. Standing independently will help him learn to stop.
Cursing, aka walking sideways along the couch or table will help your baby develop the feeling of independence of your help and further perfect and strengthen the “walking” muscles.
The accidental stepping she did while bouncing and dancing eventually become a deliberate action of hers. With it, she discovers the ability to get closer to a toy. This ability and the desire to reach something is what helps her perfect cruising along furniture.
Soon after your baby starts to cruise he will show the interest and ability to walk with a push toy. Walking with a push walker is tricky since the toy rolls away, not like a sturdy couch or the parents hands.
Your baby will need time to master the skill of walking with a push toy. If he avoids standing and walking with a push walker he is not ready to keep his body steady enough to use it.
It is critical to choose the right push walker. I have picked my favorites, you can read about it on The Gross Motor Gear page.
Here are my three favorite push walker I recommend to the parents I work with:
Read more about push toys and other gross motor gear here.
When he is brave enough to cruise along the couch or table with one hand, he might venture into cruising between furniture.
This is a very brave action!
First, he will want to make sure that when he goes over to another spot, he can hold on to both surfaces as he can not stop himself while he bravely takes a step.
While practicing stepping between furniture’s he will discover the art of stopping. When he can stop himself for a second or two, he will start to walk to another piece of furniture that is further than his arms reach.
Even though he can stop for a second, he will step with a lounge to make sure he will land safely on the next piece. It is very important to let him cruise only along heavy furniture, so the furniture does not move when the baby lounges onto it.
When your baby cruises between furniture most of the time you can be excited to see his first independent steps soon.
Some babies skip cruising between the furniture’s but you can always try to show them the option, they might like it.
The first independent steps will be smaller than the ones you observed while she was cruising.
When she cruises between furniture’s she develops confidence, but during that first indecent step, she has to perform something new.
Cautiousness is what makes her step smaller. She has the skill and the muscles to step bigger, but the safety of holding on and catching herself in need disappears.
When she is taking her first independent steps, she has to focus all her thoughts on that step. Distracting her with excitement will make her lose her focus thus her balance. It might even scare her or deter her from walking.
I suggest observing your baby quietly while she is taking her steps and cheering right after she landed at her destination or even if she fell.
When your baby takes his first 8 consecutive steps without falling he has mastered walking. Next step is walking across the room and between rooms.
To get to 8 steps, he will first have to perfect the 3 step walk. 3 step practice is the basis for good walking development. Rushing, coaxing the baby to step more and more before he is ready can make things worse.
So many times I see parents get excited and hold out a toy for the baby to walk to at 3 step distance but as soon as he gets close the parents move the toy further.
I highly recommend avoiding this practice. Stick with the 3 steps; he will get to 4, 5…8 steps faster and more confident this way.
The beginner walker will have their arms high up to support themselves to help to balance while they're learning the details of safe, independent walking.
When your baby practiced walking across the room for several weeks, you are going to notice that she becomes quite confident.
She will be able to lower her arms, eventually, carry toys while she is walking. When she is confident in the home, she will be still in need of your help walking outside.
The outdoors are boundary-less compared to the home. There are vast distances between walls, trees, roads, cars ext. There are new sounds, sights, smells, and actions everywhere to distract your baby from walking safely.
Mastering the outdoors also means mastering walking in shoes. Shoes are an assistive device, they protect the baby’s feet from the elements, and a good shoe will provide support for the baby.
A bad shoe will hinder your baby’s every step and affect her development of proper walking, running, jumping ext.
As your baby practices walking she will fall often. To avoid constantly crawling back to the couch to stand up your baby will start to try to stand up in the middle of the floor.
Standing up from the floor is a few step practice, and it starts early. Your baby, already at 7-8 month of age, will get into a bear crawl or a plank position as a first step in the getting up sequence.
During the months she is learning pulling to stand, standing, cruising, stepping she will also practice bending down standing at the couch, squatting while holding on, climbing over pillows on the floor and bear crawling. These skills will help her learn to stand up from the floor one day.
The day when she will attempt to stand up from the middle of the floor usually comes while she is an 8 step beginner walker.
You baby in the beginning stages will not notice things on the floor or in her way because she will be focused on keeping her balance. Keeping the floor empty will ensure her safety.
There comes a time though when spreading soft toys and pillows on the floor will benefit her. She will have to learn to walk and consider her environment.
She will either walk around the stuff or will walk over it. This will prepare her to walk safely and be able to balance herself on uneven surfaces like pebbles, sand, and grass.
Grass and pebbles are some of the hardest surfaces to concur.
Grass and a pebble road are surfaces that look like thousands of pieces, not a solid surface. They also feel uneven, and the pebbles move when she steps on it.
Grass, if cut looks even but could have a hidden whole or a stick under the straight looking surface which will through your baby’s balance off.
If the grass is tall, she will have to lift her legs up higher and also exert more effort stepping against the resistance of the grass.
Sand, especially soft deep sand gives much less resistance to walk on than a dirt road or the floors in the home. Every step sinks in, makes your baby work harder and focus keeping her balance.
Mastering walking on uneven surfaces makes your baby even more confident in walking and other life skills.
Every baby learns to walk differently. This video shows many babies walking, taking their first steps. It also shows how parents get emotional over their babies grand achievement! And it is also a gimps into parents way of coaxing their babies to walk.
0:37 until 1:12
This sweet little boy is side stepping, aka cruising along the couch. This practice strengthens all the muscles needed to walk independently. However, the big focus is on the hip musculature.
1:58 until 2:22
This sweet little girl is the brave type walker. She is still very wobbly both forward and backward and to the sides, yet she bravely lets go of the gate to get to the phone.
At 2:14 we can see that the phone is pulled away from the baby to coax her to take extra steps.
Since she is the brave walker she accepted the challenge, however with a cautious walker this could discourage the baby from walking.
As we can see in the cautious walker video down below (at 0:10) that when the parent moves the pacifier away, the baby loses her balance because of change of focus and she starts complaining.
She manages to stay in standing and continues which is a sign that she is stronger in her body than what she believes but some babies will stop walking. We just don't see videos of that.
7:47 until 7:59
In this video we can see how the baby gets upset, stops to consider continuing. His mom coaxes him the second time but after his 3 steps he falls because mom moves away.
He calculated how he can get to his mom, but he did not calculate that she will move. He could not have...
3:02 until 3:22
The hallway provides a direction and boundaries for the baby to walk. Some babies find it very restrictive and are afraid of the hallways. Other babies use it as the guide it can be.
This baby is happy and brave to walk in the hallway. We can hear the whole family cheering her up which encourages her to walk even more.
3:55 until 4:20
When a baby walks safely at home going out and walking on hard surfaces is the next big step.
The baby needs to learn to walk differently in shoes and on different surfaces and inclines.
Stay close to your baby and avoid any fall in the beginning to make sure his experience is a happy one.
5:29 until 6:29
Some babies are eager to walk if someone is happy about it.
Some babies get over exited about it ans cant walk because of the excitement.
See how your baby likes to be encouraged, maybe she likes it calm.
In this video, the father talks excitedly and happily to encourage this little girl to walk. She loves it! She looks for it to make an extra step.
This sweet little girl is put to the test.
She is asked to take her first steps on tile, and she is asked to go further and further to reach the desired pacifier.
Both are challenges I would not do with a beginner walker. However, she has passed the tests!