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On Call: The Danger of Walkers

Q. My friend bought her baby a walker, and she loves it. I've heard they're unsafe  -- is this true?

A.
Yes! I make a point of talking to my patients' parents about walkers early, since so many of them want to buy one.

Canada has banned the sale of walkers, and the American Academy of Pediatrics supports a similar ban in this country. Each year they send thousands of children to the hospital.

One of the biggest dangers: A child could fall down the stairs when in a walker, which can cause severe head trauma. While babies can of course suffer trauma by falling down stairs even when not in a walker, after hitting the first step, they tend to roll or stop. But given a walker's mass and shape, it's likely to fall down the entire flight, creating more injuries each time it hits another step.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that when our two oldest children, now 13 and 12, were little, they used a walker that a friend lent us  -- and they loved it. Yet a few days after our daughter Elsa (who's now 7) got one, my husband, a respiratory therapist at a children's hospital, tried to help save the life of a baby who'd fallen down a flight of stairs in one. Nothing could be done, and the child died. Suddenly, the reality of the dangers of these devices hit home, and we didn't want them anywhere near our child.

It's not just stairs that are unsafe for babies in walkers. A baby's too young to understand what he should and shouldn't touch as he scoots forward and grabs for that hot cup of coffee Mom thought was far enough away from him, or a heavy pot or a knife that's just in reach. And it's simply not realistic to think that your eyes will never leave your child and that she'll always be within your grasp. In fact, most walker injuries occur while adults are present.

What's more, walkers don't actually help babies walk any sooner. They might even slow down a child's progress, since she won't get practice pulling herself up and gaining balance. And little legs that aren't ready for all that upright time can easily develop sore muscles. So instead of a walker, I suggest (and bought for Elsa) a stationary activity center, which keeps a baby entertained-and in one place.

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