12 October 1999

The Bad Baby Development Device?

by Kate Melville

Many parents use baby walkers to give their their children exercise. Unfortunately new research from of New York at Buffalo and Case Western Reserve University indicates that rather than helping these devices may slow the development of infants, particularly in their development of skills like sitting upright, crawling and walking.

According to Roger V. Burton, PhD, head of the research team, "Newer-style walkers, which have large trays that prevent infants from seeing their moving feet and from grasping objects around them, lead to greater delays in physical and mental development".

The researchers studied the mental and physical development of 109 predominately white infants from the New York area. About half had never used a walker, about a third used newer-style walkers, and the remainder used older-style walkers that allowed them to see their moving feet grab at objects around them.

The infants in the study were first tested at either 6, 9, or 12 months of age, and then re-tested three months later, using a scaled model used to measure physical and mental development. Parents then gave feedvback on when the children achieved developmental milestones like sitting, crawling, and walking.

Those babies who used newer-style sat upright, crawled, and walked later than infants who had never used a walker. Infants who used older -style walkers learned to sit and walk at about the same age as the no-walker group, but they learned to crawl at about the same age as the children who used the newer-style walkers.

On the developmental tests side, infants who used newer-style walkers had the lowest scores on physical and mental development. On the physical development tests, infants who used older-style walkers received lower scores than the no-walker group, but the differences were not statistically different.

On mental performance, those who used older-style walkers scored somewhere between the no-walker and newer-style walker groups.

The researchers think that use of newer-style walkers leads to physical developmental delays because the walkers' large trays restrict infants' view of their moving legs, depriving them of visual feedback that would help them learn how their bodies move through space. Baby walkers also prevent infants from exploring and grabbing at things around them, which is critical to their early mental development.

"Although in some infants the effect of walker use on mental development was measurable for as long as 10 months after initial use, it is likely that normal infants who use newer-style walkers will catch up to their no-walker peers when they walk and are no longer restricted by being put into a walker. When the danger factor is considered in conjunction with the developmental data presented by our study, the risks seem to outweigh any possible benefits of early walker exposure," said Burton.

According to the researchers, in the United States 70 to 90 percent of parents of one-year-olds use baby walkers. Why these thing have not been banned is somewhat of an oddity in a country where consumer rights are paramount. This is even more unbelivable when you consider that in 1994 a report from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission cited baby walkers as responsible for more injuries than any other product for children!