Practice Walking Helps Infants Walk Earlier

In fact, contrary to all of the early anecdotes claiming that practice has no effect on the onset of walking, one carefully controlled study has shown that special exercise can indeed accelerate it. In this study, a group of newborns were given just ten minutes per day of "practice walking." Every day between one and nine weeks of age, the baby would be held upright by a parent, with his feet on a table, and allowed to exercise his stepping reflex. Two additional groups of babies received, respectively, either no exercise but weekly testing of their walking reflex, or passive exercise, in which a parent would altenately pump the baby's legs and arms while he was lying down. Compared with these two control groups, whose walking reflex declined during the eight weeks, the babies who were actively exercised maintained their walking reflex and even took more steps with each passing week. Moreover, when it came time to walk independently, the actively exercised babies achieved this milestone a full month earlier than the other two groups of babies, and two months earlier than an additional group of babies whose walking reflexes were not even tested during those early weeks.

How does early practice accelerate later walking? Probably not by affecting the corticospinal tracts, which mature too late to benefit from exercise during the newborn period. Rather, it is likely that it strengthens babies' muscles and tunes up their more precocious neural pathways, such as the circuits involved in balancing upright. The fact that the amount of acceleration is modest—babies in this study walked at around ten months of age (still within the normal range) and not at two, or five, or even eight months— shows that motor development is not massively plastic; basic neural and bodily development does set a lower limit on when a child can begin to walk. Nonetheless, learning to walk, like all other motor skills, takes practice, and even in the earliest weeks of life, motor activity influences in a lasting way how a baby's brain and muscles develop.

While practice is important in learning to walk, one type of exercise does not help and even poses a significant danger for babies: the use of infant walkers. One researcher found that babies who spent about an hour per day in their walkers, beginning around four months of age, did not walk any earlier than babies who had never used walkers, while others found that babies who used walkers for about two and a half hours per day were actually delayed in walking and other gross milestones. The problem with walkers may be that they make it too easy for babies to move around. They can explore and satisfy their curiosity without developing their balance or locomotor skills, so these abilities come more slowly. Another problem is that walkers block babies' view of their feet, and this visual feedback is important when babies take their first independent steps.


By having the parent hold the infant upright on a table to practice walk for just 10 minutes a day, they are able to accelerate the child's acquisition of this skill; however, infant walkers are found to be detrimental to this purpose for the lack of feedback they provide.

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 What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Eliot , Lise (2000-10-03), What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Bantam, Retrieved on 2011-07-18
Folksonomies: parenting babies development infants physiology