When Do Babies Start Walking? Experts Explain
When Do Babies Start Walking? The Answer Isn't as Simple as You'd Expect
As your baby inches closer to their first birthday, you may be wondering when they'll take their first steps. The truth is, there's quite a range: according to the Cleveland Clinic, babies can start walking as early as nine months, but it's also normal for babies to walk much later — around 17 or 18 months.
That said, most little ones, on average, will begin to walk around 12 months of age, says Ashanti Woods, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. But before they start going on foot, your baby needs to learn certain skills. For example, before they walk, your baby should learn how to pull up to stand and get around by holding onto something while bearing weight on both of their legs and feet. After they've mastered those things, then they may begin to take steps while holding onto something, "often referred to as cruising," Dr. Woods says.
If your baby has yet to start walking, or you want a better idea of the timeline, keep reading to learn why your baby may be walking earlier or later than expected and what you can do about it.
Factors That Affect When a Baby Starts Walking
A baby needs to reach certain gross motor milestones before they're able to walk. Tummy time leads to rolling, which is the precursor to sitting up independently, and then crawling and pulling up to stand. However, some babies skip crawling altogether and go right into walking. Interestingly, crawling doesn't play a role in the timing of your baby's first steps.
"We have a lot of babies who don't necessarily crawl or have a traditional crawl and go to walking just fine at an appropriate age," Dr. Woods says. There are many different ways to crawl, including crawling on your hands and knees and army crawling (where you're lying on your stomach and propelling yourself forward or backward). As long as your baby is moving in some way to get around, that's a sign they're on track to start walking.
Barring a neuromuscular disorder, how soon a baby walks is a matter of how much strength and coordination they have.
To be able to stand upright and walk, babies need a certain amount of core strength, says Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. They also need to have the desire to walk, she says.
Other factors that can affect when your baby will start walking are the amount of floor time they have, their physical build, whether they were born prematurely, and whether they have older siblings or are exposed to other children who are already walking.
- Floor time: "There are some families where caretakers might carry the baby around all the time just because it's convenient, but that baby needs ample time on the floor to learn how to maneuver their body," Dr. Fisher says.
- Body size: In addition, babies who weigh more might need more time to build strength and learn how to move their bodies than babies who are leaner. "It's not always the case, but sometimes, it's easier to maneuver your body around when you are kind of on the smaller side. So sometimes we'll see those babies learning how to maneuver their bodies, stand up, and then walk faster than some of the babies that have a lot more weight to heft around," Dr. Fisher explains.
- Premature birth: Babies who are born prematurely (born before 37 weeks of gestation) may experience some delay in walking, Dr. Woods says. "Just because you're premature, it doesn't mean you're developmentally delayed. But if you are premature, that might be a reason that you're not walking."
- Exposure to other walking children: Babies who have older siblings may also walk sooner than those who are the first baby in the family because they want to be able to catch up to their brothers and sisters. Similarly, babies who are regularly exposed to older babies and toddlers who are walking at daycare or the playground, for instance, might have more motivation to walk in order to keep up with their peers, Dr. Fisher says.
When Should You Be Worried If Your Baby Isn't Walking?
As previously mentioned, babies need to hit certain gross motor milestones, such as sitting up independently and standing, before they're able to take their first steps.
"Once a baby is 6 to 7 months old, we really like to have them be able to sit upright unsupported. Eventually, they might tire out and fall, but they should have the core muscles, chest muscles, and back muscles to sit up unassisted," Dr. Woods says. "However, there are some babies who do not." At the sixth- or seventh-month visit, your child's doctor might make a note of their gross motor skills. If they aren't hitting those milestones, your baby "might be at an increased risk for not walking right at 12 or 13 months," he says.
If you're concerned that your baby is delayed in any of their gross motor milestones, it's important to talk to their pediatrician right away so any developmental issues can be properly addressed. For example, if your baby hasn't tried to crawl by 12 months, that's a red flag to bring up to the pediatrician, Dr. Fisher says.
"If they're crawling at 12 months old and maybe they're trying to pull to stand but they're not great at it, at least you know that baby is making an effort. And in the office, we can examine for muscle tone or any other issues, like sight. You want to make sure those babies can see OK. If you can't see what you're doing, it's a lot harder," Dr. Fisher explains.
If a baby isn't hitting their developmental milestones, it might be an indication that they have hypotonic or low muscle tone, and can benefit from doing some physical or occupational therapy to help them build strength and create muscle memory, Dr. Woods says. If your baby hasn't attempted to take their first steps by 15 months, that's when you should reach out to their pediatrician about the possibility of doing some physical therapy.
How to Encourage Your Baby to Start Walking
You can encourage your baby to take a few steps by giving them ample floor time to play independently and learn how to move their body.
"In addition to floor time, you can make sure that they're having the ability to maneuver objects as well," Dr. Fisher says. "If you bring everything to them, they're not going to want to do those floor maneuvers. These are things that we do with babies from the time that they're born: You talk to them and then start giving them an object. They manipulate it, and then you show them something else. You want to give them motivation and make it fun." For instance, entice your baby to grab a ball or a new toy from across the room.
Around 9 months, babies will learn how to pull up to stand. That's when they will start to walk around by holding onto an inanimate object, such as a couch or coffee table. As a parent, you can also provide support by placing your hands underneath your baby's underarms or giving them your hand or a finger to hold onto as they attempt to take a few steps.
"This is going to allow the baby to stand up, bear weight on their legs, and get familiar with how much muscle it takes to stand and bear weight. That's going to create some muscle memory," Dr. Woods says.
In addition, Dr. Woods notes that babies should walk barefoot or in grippy socks on the floor or carpet when playing indoors. This will help provide feedback to their brains and bodies about balance and coordination. Once they have learned how to walk, babies can wear shoes.
Are Walkers Safe to Use?
Some parents may try using walkers, such as ones where a baby can sit in it and be supported as they walk, or those that are push walkers, such as a toy shopping cart or stroller. However, most pediatricians don't recommend using either one due to safety hazards. For example, a baby using a walker can fall down a set of stairs if left unsupervised. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics banned the use of infant walkers due to injuries. According to a widely cited 2018 study in the journal "Pediatrics," 74.1 percent of infant injuries were the result of falling down the stairs in an infant walker, and among those who were hospitalized, 37.8 percent suffered from a skull fracture.
Dr. Woods has a different opinion, and supports parents who use walkers under two conditions: first, the baby must always be supervised when using a walker; and second, if they're using a sit-in walker, they should discontinue using it around 9 months so that they can develop proper balance skills.
"Your brain has to get a message from your legs and feet that 'if I lift one foot off the ground the wrong way, I might fall,'" Dr. Woods says. "When you're in a sit-in walker, you can lift both of your feet off the ground and not fall. The purpose of the sit-in walker is merely to expose the baby's brain to transportation, but it doesn't really help with walking."
On the other hand, push walkers do provide feedback to the baby's brain and legs, so they're able to draw the connection and build coordination and strength to walk.
If your baby is using a sit-in or push walker, you want to be mindful of their environment and make sure that there are closed gates leading to stairs, the outdoors, and other hazardous areas.
A Word On Safety
Whether your baby is using a walker, crawling, or learning to walk, you want to make sure that there aren't any sharp edges on tables and other furniture that your baby can bump into and cause injury. Try to keep floors clear of clutter around your baby as they learn to walk so they don't fall and injure themselves.
As always, if you have any questions about safety as your baby learns how to walk or are unsure about something, consult their pediatrician for extra support.