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That First Step

“Babies most commonly walk between their 10th and 14th month,” says Laurie LeComer, author of A Parent’s Guide to Developmental Delays. “But walking anywhere from 9 to 15 months is considered within normal ranges.” She notes that today’s babies appear to be walking slightly later than babies once did, likely due to spending more time sleeping on their backs.

“The gross motor skills that lead up to walking develop in a predictable pattern,” LeComer says. “Parents can witness their babies gaining motor control of their heads and necks. Next, babies will progress to rolling over, reaching, and then sitting. Babies then begin to creep and crawl and then stand up on their legs while holding on. About the time of their first birthday, they reach the highly anticipated milestone of walking independently.”

At Their Own Pace

It is important to remember that all babies are different, says Dr. Lara Elizabeth Morse, a pediatric neurologist and director of the pediatric development center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey. Not only will they walk at different times, but they will also approach walking differently. “Some kids will crawl first, while other kids will have no interest in crawling,” Dr. Morse says.

Signs of Readiness

There is one universal sign that indicates a baby is soon ready to start walking, Dr. Morse says. When you are holding the child, she says to tip the child so the head is going downward. “If their hands go forward to break the fall, it shows the child is preparing to walk soon,” she says. A sign that a child may be a late walker is their flexibility, says Dr. Morse. A very flexible child is likely to be a later walker due to slower developing muscle tone.

Is Something Wrong?

When a child isn’t walking by his first birthday, many parents become concerned that there is something wrong. Both LeComer and Dr. Morse suggest noting the baby’s overall development. Did he tend to be late with other milestones? If so, walking late simply follows the pattern. Were the child’s siblings (if any) late to walk? What about the parents? If there is a family history of late walkers, it is more likely your child also will be a late walker.

The Pathways Awareness Foundation, a national nonprofit organization in Chicago that is dedicated to raising awareness about the benefit of early detection and early therapy of movement differences in children, says that at 12 months, typical physical development includes the child pulling herself to a stand and taking a few independent steps. If the child isn’t walking at that age but isn’t showing any signs of other delays, the parents’ best reaction is to be patient. However, if parents note any of the following, they are advised to tell their pediatrician:

  • Difficulty getting to stand because of stiff legs and pointed toes
  • Only uses arms to pull up to standing
  • Sits with weight to one side
  • Strongly flexed or stiffly extended arms
  • Needs to use hand to maintain sitting

These signs generally point to low muscle tone or delayed development, and these issues can almost always be corrected with physical therapy.

Plenty of children are physically ready but not showing much initiative to take that first step. Dr. Morse says it is OK to encourage the child to walk. “Getting down on the floor and playing with your child will encourage them,” she says, not only to walk, but in every other phase of their development.

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