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Myths and Truths About Walking

Sam, my oldest child, took his first solo steps on his first birthday but wasn't a competent walker for another two months. Henry, my second, didn't attempt a step until he was 14 months, and then toddled along holding my finger for nearly three months after that. Joe, my youngest, learned to walk in a single day at 10 months  -- no doubt compelled into action by the freedom his older brothers were enjoying. On Friday he was still crawling everywhere, and by Saturday night he was staggering around with the proudest grin I'd ever seen.

Differently as they did it, each of my kids learned to walk in a perfectly normal fashion. Still, it's hard not to be concerned if your child doesn't seem to be hitting that mammoth milestone  -- the one that separates men from beasts, babies from toddlers  -- in just the "right way." Here, some truths about the process that will help to put your mind at rest.

What they say: The leg muscles are the most important ones for walking.

Truth: Walking involves several muscle groups.

Strong little legs are great, but your child's back, neck, and arm muscles are crucial as well. The core muscles of the trunk help with posture, and developing them prepares an infant for sitting and standing as well as walking. To help them along, prop up your baby so she has a better view of what's going on around her. She'll have an incentive to reach out, lean forward, and turn in several directions  -- all of which work those important areas of her body. Give her lots of supervised tummy time, too, and encourage her to lift her head and chest by holding an interesting object in front of her, right at eye level.

While leg muscles do matter, there's no special exercise you need to do to develop them  -- and no way that playing with your baby will ruin them. "People used to think that if you let your infant 'stand' in your lap while you held her around the chest, it would make her bowlegged or cause problems walking, but it's not true," says Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411 and Toddler 411.

What they say: You should childproof as soon as your baby takes his first steps.

Truth: Start sooner. The time to begin is as soon as your child becomes mobile in any way, says Joseph Gigante, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville. Long before my son Henry could haul his heft around upright, he became a master climber. Once, my husband found him at the top of the attic stairs, throwing his knee over the ledge to enter the highest point in the house.

The need for babyproofing can vary from child to child. Some kids are just naturally more adventurous than others. Houston mom Anna Gray Hart thought her house was already babyproofed by the time her second child, Nora, started cruising  -- power outlets covered, cords safely tucked away, lower cabinets latched, and so on  -- but it never occurred to her that her older daughter's child-size table and chairs were a hazard. "Nora used Merrill's little chair to climb up on the table, and then used the table as a stepladder to the half-wall that separates our kitchen and family room. Dancing on tabletops wasn't the future I had in mind for her!" she says.

Before your child starts moving around  -- certainly by the time he's 6 months old  -- get down at baby level and survey your house with a child's eyes. Tiny objects and cords need to be put out of reach. Also, look for sharp edges and corners that need to be covered, and secure to the wall any furniture, like a bookshelf, that a baby might use to pull himself up.

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl worked at Sikes Children's Shoes in Homewood, Alabama, as a teen.