I get asked a lot about baby walkers/ bouncers – are they good for children? Do they help them to walk?
No, and No. I’ll explain why we don’t recommend the use of them (However I do know as a parent, that often a walker or jumparoo can be the only place your baby will go in happily to give you 5 minutes to go to the toilet or finish cooking dinner – if you have one and need to use it then use it sparingly and with the following information in mind ):
Babies develop in stages, and each stage lays the foundation for the next. As a very young baby, you start to develop some core balance between the muscles on the front and back of your trunk, which gives you some stability and helps you to hold your head up. From there, you start to be able to use your arms, separating them from your body – for example pushing up on your arms when lying on your tummy, lifting your head up, using the strength in your back to shift your centre of gravity from your heavy head and down towards your bottom. When you’re lying on your back you start to realise you can move your arms away from your body to reach up for toys, to grab your toes and bring them to your mouth – along with everything else you can get your hands on! This is working your tummy muscles and muscles at front of your shoulders. bringing those feet up high and reaching for them starts to stretch out the muscles that are in a shortened position at birth, for example, your hamstrings (muscles at the back of the hip and knee).
All the work at each stage develops the muscle control and movement control needed for the next stage. So after grabbing your feet on your back, and then pushing up on straight arms on your tummy, you start to learn to roll over, combining some of these new skills: pulling into flexion to make your base a bit unstable so that you can roll from your back to your side, using your arms (that have been practising reaching up for toys) to reach over, and then push up with that new-found extension, straightening your back and lifting your head to be able to roll onto your tummy. So rolling takes a combination of the flexion you learned when lying on your back and the extension you practised when lying on your tummy. You need the stability and trunk control that you learned when you were being held, and the head control – being able to lift your head by tucking your chin when you’re on your back and by extending your neck when you’re on your tummy. All of this balance of control helps you first with rolling, and then with your next big gross motor developmental milestone- sitting.
When you’re sitting, the stability you have developed around your shoulders, from floor play on your back and tummy, together with the strength and balance – being able to switch between using muscles on the front of the trunk (the flexors) and the back of the trunk (the extensors), with your head control – all work together to keep you upright. All the time you’re practising your sitting you’re still perfecting your rolling, your grasp and release, arm stability… Playing on your back and your tummy, exploring toys in your hand and mouth, pulling your own socks off – all these play positions strengthen the early foundations and build the layers for the next stages of development.
When children first learn to sit they generally only grab for toys within their base of support, and slowly they start to develop the strength and confidence to push on one arm and lean gradually further out. This might take them onto their hands and knees or to side sitting (where the legs are swept to one side and you’re leaning on one arm). From there you might go onto hands and knees, perhaps to grab a toy that was just out of reach. Now we’re starting to build in more of a 3D strength (as opposed to the 2D strength of being on your back or your tummy) – we have rotation, we have lengthening – one side of the trunk while the other side is short… This all helps to build that support around the trunk that we need. By supporting yourself on your hands and arms, you gain further stability around shoulder girdles which supports better fine motor control (use of hands), pushing through the palm helps the intrinsic muscles in your hands develop.
When you’re in a crawling position you might rock forwards and back, testing out the stability in your shoulder and hip girdles, and increasing the flexibility/mobility around pelvis – you may then go back into sitting and realise that this tilting pelvis gives you a bit more reach. Reaching forward from sitting position also helps to further lengthen your hamstrings, ready for standing and walking.
Once you are crawling, you start to learn how to move your legs reciprocally, i.e. independently of each other – one leg stays back in a more extended position to support you, the other steps forward in a more flexed position, and then they swap. From crawling you start to experiment by coming up onto your knees, maybe reaching up and climbing onto the sofa. Now you really need the stability around the pelvis you have been working on now as well as the strength in your arms to support yourself as you start to rise from the floor! You also need the reciprocal movement that your legs have been practising in crawling to bring one leg through and push up to standing.
From standing, you use all the stability and mobility you have gained so far to feel safe and secure so you feel relaxed and comfortable playing up at the next level. No need to stiffen your legs or point your toes to feel more stable.
Your playing and shifting your weight from one leg to the other as you reach to play with toys on the left and toys to the right, then you realise you can step sideways along the sofa to reach even further, using your strong arms to support yourself when your need to. This activates the muscles at the side of the bottom and hip, which are really important to keep your pelvis level and steady when you’re walking. From there you might start to take risks and ‘gapping’ between pieces of furniture, squatting down to reach for toys and rising again. Building that stability and confidence. and from there you’ll learn to walk.
Then one day you find yourself standing in the middle of the floor, no table or sofa around you and you walk, like you have been doing it all along!
So, where do baby walkers/ bouncers fit in with this? The answer is they don’t!
In a walker – you are sitting in a sling and bouncing or propelling yourself forward on your toes in a bunny hopping style. They take time away from floor play and moving between these important developmental milestones in an order where different positions and activities support both, the skills that started to develop earlier and those still to come. Helping children to lengthen the muscles they need longer for when they are up and about and to build stability required to master stages and embark on new adventures in different positions.
Baby walkers/ bouncers take you up into standing well before children are ready to be there – so children compensate by pointing their toes to gain stability they don’t yet have and using both legs together to propel themselves forward as they haven’t learnt to step reciprocally (one foot at a time yet).
When your child is ready to walk – almost there: they are cruising with furniture, walking along the cupboards in the kitchen and taking a few steps between furniture (gapping) then a push along walker van be a great piece of equipment for them to use.