Is it okay to hold your baby’s hands to help him walk? Apparently the topic is up for debate.
The RIE article by Janet Lansbury called 9 Reasons Not To Walk Your Baby is a stance tha she admits on Facebook is one that many will disagree with her on. I am one of those who disagree, though I do generally recommend her articles on gentle discipline and boundaries.
True, “Practice walking” with baby’s hands over head in parents hands is not preparation for real walking, but instead, a form of play. Real walking requires the baby to use her own arms for a sense of balance and the arms need to be much lower, nearer to the core of the body. Real walking starts from standing and holding onto something, or up from a squat position and then forward.
Here are the reasons I believe it is absolutely safe to hold your baby’s hands to play “walking.” According to evolutionary biology of primates (humans are primates, evolving):
1) Chimps learned to stand on the back limbs (legs) while swinging and grasping vines and branches up above and steadying the back limbs on other branches. Like tightrope walking with a top rope.
2) Then, they evolved to be able utilize the front limbs (hands) for gathering food while walking only on the back limbs.
3) They not only help their infants to practice walking by holding them by the hands and arms, standing while a parent is holding the arms happens extremely early as infants are swung from parent’s back to the ground by the hands repeatedly throughout the day.
4) Baby primates’ moms play with their infants all day long and practice every skill needed for survival turning it into a fun activity. They also model skills.
So, I personally see holding baby’s hands to play “walking” is an evolutionary outgrowth of primates swinging from mom’s back or chest to the ground, for necessity and for play.
Cross-Cultural and Anthropological perspectives:
1) Many studies find that though there are huge cross-cultural differences in child-rearing methods encouraging or not encouraging gross motor development between 3 and 40 months, most children’s gross motor skills throughout the world are comparable by 40 months. You know how people say “Each on her own time, everyone will catch up?” It’s mostly true*- whether you “helped” a lot or not.
2) Many Asian and African cultures “practice walking” with babies from birth. These cultures see infants walking earlier than other cultures and these cultures are known for developing gaits of walking which enable females to carry heavy loads on the back and the head without harmful strain on the body. A few cultures suggest that a baby should never touch the ground in their first year of life. Still, all of these children will eventually walk. This info is from The Handbook of Cross-Cultural Development Science and is a fascinating comparison of cross cultural studies on walking and gross motor movement! You can read the whole first volume here!
Sometimes when we read something that makes us worry about every detail on how we raise our children, or changes how we instinctually do this work, it is helpful to look at cross-cultural comparisons and how varied parenting styles can produce happy and healthy children. Parents who adhere to the RIE principles and never ever help a baby walk will also have children who learn to walk and have similar gross motor skills to their preschool peers.
Lansbury admits in her comments section of the walking article, “There is no scientific evidence that it causes problems that I know of.” And she would be correct. I cannot find any scientific evidence either. Therefore, please don’t be scared that you will harm your child or in any way delay walking by playing “walk” just for fun.There is beginning to be some evidence from the physical therapy field that overuse of baby wheeled walkers and bouncers can be harmful. I do not recommend those.
One of the reasons I believe in attachment theory in parenting is the science. Attachment draws from the cultural anthropology, biology and social science. I absolutely love what RIE parenting method has to say about discipline, and founder Magda Gerber’s perspective on boundaries is an important one, but on some topics I worry that there isn’t enough scientific basis for parents to change what feels instinctually right for their family.
RIE’s main point is that we hover and intervene too much with independent learning and play. I agree with that. I also believe that there is a middle way between not helping and not playing and doing way too much. But play walking is safe. The 9 reasons in Lansbury’s article are aligned with her own observations in line with Magda Gerber’s RIE theories and if they resonate for you, awesome!
I’ve been very influenced by RIE but not all of it sticks true for me in my own experience working with hundreds of babies and as a parent. What does your parenting intuition tell you? Did you “play walk” with your baby?
*Of course not all children will develop optimally and might have special needs around gross motor development. If you are concerned about your child’s development, here is a link to a great list of ways to facilitate independent walking and ways to get support from an OT or PT if needed: http://www.earlyinterventionsupport.com/when-should-baby-start-walking/
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