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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.

More walking myths and truths

What they say: A walker or stationary activity center will help your child learn to walk.

Truth: Just the opposite  -- they may cause delays. Walkers can strengthen the lower leg muscles but don't help the ones in the upper legs and hips. These devices also tip over easily when they hit obstacles, and infants are more likely to fall down stairs while they're in one. Be safe: Don't use them.

Stationary centers (which don't have wheels) don't pose the same safety risks and can give you a much-needed break  -- but they don't do anything to promote walking. "They're fun and they may give babies some autonomy to sit up or stand without having to use their hands, but that's about it," says Dr. Brown.

There are toys that do encourage walking, especially riding toys with a push bar on back. (The counterweight provided when another small child is riding on it and your baby is pushing makes it easier to maintain balance.) But the bottom line: "A family's own furniture  -- as kids cruise from coffee table to couch and from couch to chair  -- is plenty to encourage walking," says Dr. Brown.

What they say: All kids crawl before they walk.

Truth: Some babies don't crawl at all. "While most crawl sometime between seven and ten months, many skip this stage and go straight to walking," says Dr. Gigante. Other babies, like Lauren Thomas of Marietta, Georgia, save crawling for later. "She started walking at nine months but didn't crawl until after that  -- when she wanted to get to something that wasn't far enough away to bother walking to," says her mother, Alisha.

Even kids who crawl first can do it in funny-looking ways. Because their arm muscles get strong before their leg muscles do, it's not unusual for them to push themselves backward at first, or even to scoot along on their backs instead of their stomachs. Other normal variations: rolling, scooting along on their bottoms, commando crawling, and squirming on their bellies  -- basically, all the stuff that gets big ratings on Dancing With the Stars.

What they say: Learning to stand up is toughest.

Truth: Actually, the tricky part is figuring out how to sit back down. Sounds weird, but it's common: Your baby may pull himself up, then look down and scream in fear. It's a scenario that often occurs for the first time in the middle of the night, when a baby pulls up on the crib rail and gets stranded. (And as my son Joe discovered, it doesn't help to hold on while attempting to get back down; every time he tried it, he'd bump his nose on the crib rail, which only made matters worse  -- instead of being merely frightened, he was hurt as well.)

It helps to give your baby some daytime practice in learn-ing to bend his knees and lower himself softly. Babies are fast learners, and gravity is a handy teacher. If your child still takes a tumble, though, don't be concerned. Falling  -- many, many times a day  -- is just part of learning to walk.

What they say: Wearing shoes will help your child learn to walk.

Truth: Barefoot is better. Shoes make it difficult for your child's foot to bend, which in turn makes it harder for her to develop balance and coordination. Also, novice walkers use their bare toes to grip the floor.

Babies do need shoes when it's cold, though, and when they're walking outside. Inexpensive ones are fine if they're flexible and have nonskid soles. They don't have to be high-tops; in fact, the "ankle support" that high-tops supposedly provide may actually slow your baby down.

To find a pair that fits well, put the shoes on your baby without fastening them, then stand her up so all her weight is on her feet. Hold her heel in place and then check for growing room. If you can fit your finger between the top of her foot and the top of the shoe, and you've left about a thumb's width of extra space between her longest toe (which isn't always the "big" toe) and the end of the shoe, the fit is fine, and you should get at least two months' wear out of the shoes. (If one foot's larger than the other, buy the size that fits the bigger foot better.)

Double-check the fit as your baby grows by looking at her feet whenever you remove her shoes and socks. If there are bright red marks at her heels or toes, or on the sides, it's probably time to go shoe shopping again.

What they say: If your child's walking on his tiptoes, or with his toes turned outward, something's wrong.

Truth: Most children actually start out this way. It isn't abnormal  -- neither is waddling or walking knock-kneed. Most kids outgrow these conditions by the time they're 3.

If the tiptoeing continues, or if your baby physically can't bring his heels down flat, his pediatrician may check him for tight heel cords and refer you to an orthopedic surgeon. Otherwise, there's no cause for concern. Chances are your child will be walking perfectly soon enough  -- and your only worry will be how to keep up with him.