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Look Who's Walking!

When it comes to milestones, it's hard to beat your baby's first steps.

Just think: About a year ago, she couldn't even hold up her own head! Making the transition from a helpless lump to a mobile toddler requires an impressive combination of muscular strength, balance, coordination, and initiative.

Most babies take their first steps around their first birthday, but a few take off as early as 9 months; others don't toddle until 18 months or later. My three daughters dillydallied for what seemed like forever  -- up to four months passed between their initial attempts at walking and their first solo steps. But when my son, Zak, realized that getting around on his own two feet was a possibility, he practiced nearly every waking hour for a few days until he nailed it.

Even when walking seems to happen overnight, it actually takes most babies about 1,000 hours of practice from the time they pull themselves upright to the time they can walk alone, says Mary Weck, a clinical specialist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. Regardless of how they go about it or how long it takes, most babies follow the same basic pattern of development, and there are plenty of ways for you to help. You'll want to respect your child's pace, though. Rather than coax her to the next stage, look for ways to make it fun now.

Please Be Seated

Basic body building

The single most important requirement for walking: strong back muscles, which babies develop by lifting their head while lying on their tummy. "But babies today are getting a lot less tummy time than they used to, now that we know they should sleep on their back," says Robert Walker, M.D., a pediatrician in Columbia, South Carolina.

What you can do: From birth, put your baby on her tummy when she's awake, if only for a minute at a time in the beginning. Pick her up if she objects, and try again later. Carry her around on her tummy or put her facedown on your lap. Marni Winslow of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and her now 10-month-old, Alivia, had a favorite exercise routine when Alivia was smaller: "I used to do sit-ups while she lay on my stomach, looking right at me. It was a fun workout for both of us!"

Rolling over

At around 3 months, your baby may practice little push-ups  -- lifting up his head and shoulders with his arms while he's on his tummy. He'll soon put that upper-body strength to work. Pushing off with one hand  -- while straining to see something out of the corner of his eye or simply experimenting with his newfound physical prowess  -- he'll muscle himself over, most likely belly to back, sometime between 4 and 7 months.

What you can do: Get down on the floor with your baby and give him a bright toy or a wide smile  -- anything worth turning over to see.

Sitting pretty

Your baby's been able to sit up when propped (with pillows or on your lap) since she was 2 months old, but at 6 to 8 months her neck strength, head control, balance, and coordination will come together so she can sit unaided. At first, she may lean forward, with her weight on her hands, but by about 7 months she'll be able to free those hands for play.

What you can do: Help her practice her balance and mobility by rolling a ball back and forth with her. Or hold a toy in front of her and move it from side to side, which entices her to lean this way and that. As she lunges forward or crawls, she'll develop more strength in her neck, back, legs, and arms, as well as more control of her hips  -- enabling her to pull herself up to a standing position and, just as important, safely plop down again.


Now, Stand Up


With improved eyesight and the ability to sit up, your baby will see the world from a new perspective. By 8 months, he's motivated to get places  -- to a toy just out of reach, the kitty darting behind him, or that valuable vase across the room. He'll soon lean forward to get on all fours so he can crawl (or scoot or squirm) wherever he wants to go. And if he comes across a footstool or a low table, he'll use it to pull himself upright (usually between 7 and 11 months). At first, 10-month-old Summer Rose Mathews of Boxford, Massachusetts, used the couch for her boost. Now, says her mom, AnneMarie, she can pull herself up on almost anything: the fridge, a door, her dad's leg.

What you can do: Don't worry if your baby takes a few detours along the way. Some kids pull up before they crawl, while others skip the crawling stage altogether. They all manage to get upright. That doesn't mean they can all get down again, though. You may need to teach your baby how to squat back down by gently folding him at the hips. You can also help him practice by letting him use your fingers to pull himself up to stand and then sit. While he's standing, take his hands and bounce together lightly to some music.

This may seem like a logical time to use a bouncer or an elliptical seat that holds your baby upright, but there's really no need. In fact, such devices may even delay his walking if they're used too often. "A child's body is aligned incorrectly when he sits in one of these," says Weck. "Your baby's much better off on the floor or in a playpen."

Cruise control

After your child's mastered standing, she'll start to leave her handprints all over the house as she cruises from the wall to a chair to the coffee table. At 11 months, Lauryn Hart of Royersford, Pennsylvania, preferred a friendlier aid: Buckley, the family dog. "She used our black Lab to brace herself and stand up," says her mom, Robyn, "and when he walked, she waddled alongside him, hanging on to his ears or his tail."

What you can do: Help your child out by arranging sturdy furniture so she can make her way across the room. Or position yourself on the floor to form a bridge in strategic locations. She may not yet be able to sit from a standing position, and many babies won't take off on their own until they're able to land on their bottom without getting hurt (well, most of the time), so you might want to practice that low squat with her.


Running Free

Going solo

Sometime between 9 and 18 months, it'll happen. Your baby may discover by mistake that he can stand without support. With his belly against the table, he may just let go. Or he may be prompted to let go on purpose  -- if you offer him a drink or a favorite teddy, for instance. Marcia and Charlie Turner of Penfield, New York, put themselves on the floor as the two supports for 14-month-old Grant. They encouraged him to take steps to each of them by sitting just a few inches apart and then gradually lengthening the distance until he was taking several steps on his own. "He caught on quickly after that!" says Marcia.

What you can do: Offer lots of encouragement and praise. You might also give him a little chair with arms to practice lowering himself into  -- good bending practice for his hips and knees. And be sure to boost your childproofing efforts now that he can cover more ground (see "To Play It Safe" below).

How long will it take before your child's a full-fledged toddler? Babies average ten steps within ten days of their first step, says Weck. But a hiatus isn't uncommon. Joey Reitano of Philadelphia took his first steps on a Thursday, then refused to walk for visiting family that weekend. "So much for my best-laid plans to show him off," says his mom, Jessica, "but when he decided to try again a few weeks later, he was fearless." Your baby may simply take her time, or even regress for a bit, but rest assured  -- once she's taken her first step, there's no stopping the pitter-patter.

Karen Miles, a mom of four in Blairstown, Iowa, has written for Parenting for a dozen years.