I can understand the urge to walk babies. After all, they seem to like it so much. When we help our babies walk, they are gleefully entertained — enjoying us enjoying them — while we’re getting a preview of one of life’s major milestones. Sometimes we’re compelled to walk our babies because we think they need help developing their motor skills and believe it our duty to teach them. We worry that our children will fall behind if we don’t give them a hand or two (literally).
So, why rain on this innocent parade and suggest not walking babies?
1. Body wisdom
“Only a baby knows just the way his joints should align,” notes Carol Pinto, a longtime RIE Associate, Feldenkrais practitioner and friend. In other words, when it comes to motor development, babies are self-learners — they really do know best. By holding a baby’s hands to mobilize him, position and reposition his body, we hinder his natural ability to find balance, sense spatial relations, and judge what he can and cannot do. Better to trust our babies to walk when they are ready, and by doing so encourage mental and physical awareness.
Awareness and safety go hand-in-hand, and walking babies makes them less aware — gives them a false sense of balance and of their abilities — which can be dangerous. In Don’t Stand Me Up I describe an unfortunate incident at our home involving my unwitting husband and a friend’s toddler who was accustomed to being walked down steps.) But babies who are given freedom to move and develop in their own way gain a self-knowledge that keeps them safer. Their inner sense of balance and judgment intact, movements are carefully calculated, and they tend to make fewer reckless moves. In a 1971 study on natural gross motor development at the Pikler Institute (as reported in The RIE Manual) researchers described the children’s movements as “well-coordinated, economical and cautious”. They also noted that “the children, without exception, attained age-appropriate skills.”
3. Habits, dependencies
Walk babies, and they’ll probably want to do it again and again. Not only does this create an unhealthy dependence on an adult for body balancing, it makes a habit of an activity that the baby will likely be much more interested in continuing (and doing far more often) than we are. Babies are extremely fond of repetition. And, personally, I’m not fond of having more situations with babies where I have to say, “No”. Babies who are not walked or otherwise positioned never ask to be.
4. Parent’s backache
5. Thwarts independent play
The walking habit creates an unnecessary and unproductive dependency on the adult for entertainment. Engaging the parent to repeat the activity becomes a distraction when the child could be happily working on developing motor skills his way, or engaged in other more educational, creative and exploratory self-generated activities.
Although we probably believe that our well-intentioned manipulation of a baby is helping him learn to move freely, we are actually restricting him (just as we do when propping him to sit and holding him to stand). Babies need lots of practice moving freely to attain new skills. It is best to encourage that freedom and trust them to be inner-directed. Only babies know what they are ready to do and what they’re working on.
7. Loss of transitional movements
Researchers at the Pikler Institute also noted in their observation of the 722 children raised in this model orphanage (the only place that I’m aware of where natural gross motor development has been officially studied) that the children maintained a “stable high activity level during the whole period of learning new motor skills and changed their postures on average of at least once per minute. This indicates that a child restricted from moving freely is deprived of the long hours of exercising in transitional postures before mastering the next developmental skill.” (From The RIE Manual.)
These wonderful transitional postures are one of the striking differences I’ve seen over the years between babies who are allowed to develop without interference and those who aren’t.
There is an agile 7 month old boy in my new class who spends the majority of the class in perfect straddle splits when he isn’t sitting (a recent development) or scooting across the floor. The parents (neither of whom are dancers, gymnasts, or even circus performers) and I were marveling at him just last week, wondering if, and for how long he will maintain this astonishing flexibility.
Transitional postures are building blocks, each one having a distinct and valuable developmental purpose for our child. When we, however subtly, nudge our child to sit or walk, we believe we are helping, but the child ends up losing out on experiencing a healthier developmental process which includes the wide array of naturally strength-building postures.
8. Trust + Mastery = Self-Confidence
Basic trust in our baby means allowing him to drive his development. When a baby feels our trust and is allowed to experience his appropriate self-chosen struggles and then eventually to own his independent accomplishments (like walking), self-confidence is nurtured. Instead of, “Now I can finally do it without daddy’s hands holding me.” It’s “Wow, look what I can do!”
9. I’m enough
When we’re dating, everyone wants to know when we’ll be married. Then we get married and it’s, “When are you having a baby?” Then, “Is the baby smiling? Sitting? Walking? Talking? When are you having baby number 2?” Why is it so hard for us to appreciate what’s going on right now?
Babies need to know that they are appreciated, enjoyed and loved for what they are able to do at this moment. Generally, they never need our help for the basics like sitting, standing and walking. Our interference only confuses the process, and in many ways corrupts it. They really don’t need our help, as much as we’re driven to give it. As Magda Gerber writes in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “If infants are ready to do something, they will do it. In fact, when they are ready, they have to do it.”
I share more about this organic, child-led approach in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting