Walking & Making Buddies

So much depends on temperament, body build – even birth order. Find out what leads to those first steps.

Mastering the Walk

Probably no milestone is as chock-full of thrills, chills, and excitement as your baby’s first steps. Between 13 and 15 months, “all of your child’s energy will be focused on taking those first unsupported steps,” says DeAnn Davies, a child development specialist at Healthy Steps, a pediatric care program in Phoenix .”You might notice that your child isn’t learning new words at the same rate, for instance, because she’s so busy trying to master walking.”

Just imagine balancing on a tightrope without a net, with little ability to stop, start, or change direction. Carrying on a conversation would be the last thing on your mind! In fact, walking requires such enormous complexity of balance and coordination, “he really can’t do anything else and may not even be able to listen if you’re talking to him,” says Karen Carter, MD, a developmental pediatrician at the Medical College of Georgia Children’s Medical Center , in Augusta.

The Pitter-Patter of Little Feet

First, your child pulls to stand on whatever looks handy — the coffee table, crib rail, or couch will do nicely as her first balance beam.

Now she’s on cruise control. Her fingers will do the walking first, as she slides both hands along whatever’s supporting her, using mostly the weight of her arms to support her body.

Soon, your child will rise to the rank of Expert Cruiser, as she discovers that she can stand back from her support with arms outstretched. This move places more of her weight on her legs. Instead of sliding both hands together now, she’ll be confident enough to cross hand-over-hand; feet eventually follow in kind, as beginning walkers move from sliding their feet to picking them up off the ground and balancing.

When she can rely on just one hand and one foot to support her, she’ll be ready to cross small gaps between safe handholds. She won’t yet release one support unless she can reach another, but she’ll crank up her cruising speed and delight in moving from couch to table to Dad’s pant leg, improving coordination as she learns how to judge distances and recognize objects from this new perspective.

One Foot in Front of the Other

When will she walk unsupported? There’s a wide range of “normal” when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other. Depending on temperament, body build, gender, and family environment, babies vary from taking just a few days to several weeks as they transform into true bipeds. For instance, more cautious children may rely on this supported cruising for weeks or even months; occasionally a sudden fall or unexpected change in daily routine may even cause them to revert to crawling again as they reconsider their moves. (Don’t worry: The sequence from standing to cruising to walking will take less time on her second go-round.) Other, braver souls will venture forth with one foot in front of the other and keep going. Interestingly, “there is no correlation between early crawlers and walking earlier,” says Davies. But larger, heavier babies may have a harder time getting their balance than smaller, more agile tykes; and boys often walk earlier than girls, say experts. Family environment also plays a role: The youngest child in a family will often walk later than first children or only children, Davies notes, probably because other people are around to pick him up at the first peep of distress.

“Overall, we’d want to refer a baby for evaluation if he isn’t walking by 16 months, to assess the quality of his motor skills,” says Davies.

No matter when your baby takes those first steps toward independence, it will probably be because she’s forgotten that she’s doing something risky. “She’ll step away from whatever she’s holding on to because she’s so motivated by a toy she wants that she’ll forget she might fall,” says Davies. Then she’ll likely be so astonished by her own victory that she’ll want to try it again.

Baby’s Curiosity and Excitement

Between 13 and 15 months, your baby lives in the Right Here and Right Now. He is so determined to quench his own curiosity that he can’t see past his own passions. As a result, he may appear endlessly defiant. You tell him “no” every time he climbs onto the couch to get to the windowsill full of plants, intent on excavating dirt, but he does it anyway. You tell him “no” when he wants a cookie and you want him to eat his banana instead, but he throws the banana on the floor and shakes his head, then grins at the mess.

You’re not the only one saying “no.” It’s probably your toddler’s favorite word. After all, he’s heard it a lot in his short lifetime, it’s easier to say than “yes,”and it makes your child feel like he’s in control, points out DeAnn Davies, a child development specialist and coordinator at Healthy Steps, in Phoenix .

What appears to be defiance at this age is really just a matter of your baby’s becoming more mobile and self-aware. He is discovering his own likes and dislikes, learning to make choices, and testing the limits of what you will and won’t let him do. He isn’t being deliberately good or bad. He isn’t old enough to have the memory, the attention span, or the impulse control to stay away from the stereo or remember that cookies are eaten only after lunch.

At this age, babies are in love with the world. “They want to know how everything works and what everything does,” says Davies. “Now that your baby is walking, he is living life with gusto.”

Let’s Be Friends

Your 1-year-old will start taking a keen interest in other children now, observes Karen Carter, MD, a developmental pediatrician at the Medical College of Georgia Children’s Medical Center in Augusta . “When you’re out and about, you’ll notice that he’ll make eye contact with other babies or point out other children so that you see them, too,” says Dr. Carter. Yet, if the two of you get together with another mom and toddler, your perfect little angel is apt to either ignore his friend or bop him over the head if they’re fighting over a toy. What’s that about? Are these so- called play dates worth the effort if you have to supervise your kids so closely?

Absolutely. Learning social niceties like sharing toys and not biting your best friend are huge developmental milestones that many children don’t conquer until preschool. Yet, even if he’s playing side by side with another toddler and doesn’t seem to be actively engaged with him — a type of interaction that experts dub parallel play — your toddler is learning something from the interaction. Watch two toddlers playing in the same room, and you’ll notice that they often glance in one another’s direction and imitate each other’s antics, whether it’s making animal noises for a stuffed toy, stacking blocks, or tossing a handful of stones onto the playground slide. If such a play date breaks down and one child scratches, bites, or hits, it doesn’t mean that child is mean or a lousy friend. It’s just a sign that he’s overwhelmed and has lost control — something that happens to even the most placid players. That’s why it’s vital to supervise and intervene if necessary, and to be sure there are enough toys to go around. (It’s wise to have doubles of popular toys.) And note: Studies have shown that toddlers are able to play together longer and interact better if they meet regularly, especially if they play one-on-one.

Age-by-Age Milestones

Sign for the Times

Introducing sign language to babies between 13 and 15 months may greatly help children with communication skills, say some experts. Because babies learn to coordinate their large muscles before refining small-muscle control, learning how to move their head or make a hand sign for a word is easier for them at this age than combining the intricate motions of tongue, lips, and jaw to say new words. “We see children demonstrating less frustration, and having fewer tantrums, if parents can teach them a few simple signs for words,” notes Davies.

Although there are standardized Baby Signs programs, most parents can easily make up their own signs. Just choose simple gestures to perform, and be sure that everyone uses the same sign every time, and that the adults are consistent in pairing the sign with the word. For instance, you can teach your child to touch his hand to his mouth when he wants to say “eat,” and you can say, “Eat? Okay!”

Month 13

Cruises furniture or takes first steps alone
Can take objects in and out of containers
Throws objects

Month 14

Helps to dress and undress self
Attempts to use utensils
Plays alone for short periods of time

Month 15

Walks independently
Follows simple commands
Able to pound pegs into a workbench

Holly Robinson lives with her five children outside of Boston .

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2006.

The information on this website is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child’s condition.