Your baby will likely take his first steps between 9 months and 16 months of age. While each child reaches this milestone on their own time, there are activities that you can do at home to help them along. Walking requires a combination of skills including balance, trunk control, hip stability, leg strength, confidence and motor planning. It’s no wonder it can take some time from when your child is standing independently to those first steps.
Here are 9 activities to help your child walk independently:
One of the gross motor skills that precedes walking is cruising, or stepping sideways, at a stable piece of furniture. You can help your child along by giving them plenty of opportunities to practice this skill. Place desired toys at the opposite end of a couch or coffee table that they are holding on to so they are encouraged to step sideways across the table to reach the toy.
2. Reaching for objects
Reaching for objects such as bubbles or putting a ball into a hoop in a standing position helps your child to activate their dynamic balance reactions and improve trunk strength. You can encourage them to shift their weight and/or rotate their body in standing by holding desired toys slightly out of reach and in different directions so they are reaching up, across, or away from their body.
3. Squat to stand to pick up objects
Squatting to pick up an object off the floor is a great way for your child to increase their leg strength (think of squats that adults do for exercise!) and work on maintaining balance while their center of gravity is moving. Encourage your child to help you clean up toys on the floor and place them into a basket. Or place desired toys on the floor so that your child squats to pick them up.
4. Transitioning to standing from the floor or sitting
Transitions to standing, whether it be from sitting on a chair or the floor, help to strength trunk and leg muscles. Encouraging your child to pull to stand from a half kneeling position (on one knee with the other foot on the floor) will cause them to use more leg strength, as opposed to pulling up using mostly their arm muscles. The half kneeling position also helps with hip mobility and balance to prepare for walking. Transitioning to standing from sitting on a low bench or chair will also help with strengthening lower body musculature.
5. Push toys
Push toys or play grocery carts or doll strollers are a good way for your child to practice stepping in a normal pattern using “dynamic” support. This allows for less reliance on stable support and teaches your child to anticipate the movement and adjust their body accordingly. It is not recommended to put your child in a baby walker as they place your child in an unnatural standing position, take away the ability to see the legs and feet during stepping, and decrease opportunities for crawling and pulling up to stand. There are also serious safely concerns with baby walkers.
6. Climbing stairs
Climbing stairs (in a crawling position) is a great way to promote trunk and lower body dissociation and strengthening, which are needed for walking. Of course, make sure that the environment is safe and you are supervising any time your child is climbing up the stairs.
7. Barefoot exploration
Letting your child stand and navigate their environment with bare feet allows them to experience different tactile sensations along the bottom of their feet and recruit the intrinsic muscles which eventually develop into arch support. Take off their shoes and socks and allow them to walk on grass, sand, padded mats, solid floors, carpets, etc. If you must put your child in shoes, soft soled shoes are best which still allow your child to flex their forefeet and toes.
8. Holding objects in both hands while standing
Give your child a toy that requires use of both hands to manipulate and/or carry. Holding an object with both hands while standing discourages use of external support and promotes increased use of trunk and legs to maintain balance. Toys such as a large ball or stuffed animal, or musical toys like a shaker in each hand would all work well.
9. Practicing walking with support in different environments
Change up the environment in which your child is practicing walking. Take them to an outdoor playground, an indoor gym, or the houses of friends and family members. Different settings will present them with different challenges and incentives and help them to generalize skills (perform the same skill in multiple environments).
-Julie Butt, Physical Therapist