It seems like a fun idea: Sitting your infant in a baby walker to give him a new way to scoot around your home. But a recent study found that an estimated 2,000 babies visit emergency rooms each year with walker-related injuries -- often to the head and neck -- after toppling down stairs.
Even when they're on level ground, walkers allow babies to reach hot stoves, steaming mugs of coffee, appliance cords, and poisons, or to fall into pools before they fully understand these dangers, says Gary A. Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, OH, who led the study on walker injuries.
"The device is inherently dangerous by design, and for that reason simply shouldn't be on the market," he says. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a ban on the manufacture and sale of baby walkers, which are still sold in the U.S.
Smith's research does reveal some good news: The number of walker-related injuries has declined dramatically since 1990, when more than 20,000 children visited emergency rooms due to walkers. In the following decade, companies began making stationary activity centers without wheels. And voluntary federal standards established in 1997 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) led companies to make wheeled walkers wider than typical doorways, or to manufacture them with a brake that halts the wheels if they drop over the edge of a step. The CPSC added stricter standards in 2010, preventing companies from importing walkers without those safety features.
Although these rules reduced the number of injuries, babies are still getting hurt. "The thing that gets my attention is that there's a very high proportion of really severe injuries," Smith says. These include skull fractures, concussions, and burns to the head and neck. Strong babies can override the brake to push themselves down stairs, and walkers zip around at lightning speed. "A child can move up to 4 feet a second in a mobile baby walker," says Smith.
Smith acknowledges that well-meaning parents use walkers because they want to keep their infants stimulated and entertained. They believe babies will be safe if they just watch them closely. (They might also think that walkers will help babies learn to walk, which is untrue, he adds.) But Smith says he has met attentive, conscientious parents who were stunned by their child's walker accident. "It doesn't matter if you're standing right there," he says. "Kids are going to move so quickly that you don't have time to react before they're down the stairs."
Parents may be tempted to buy baby walkers "to keep their children challenged, happy, and engaged," says Smith. Here are better ways to keep your little one occupied and injury-free.
Tummy time: Smith is a fan of placing your infant on her belly on the floor for short periods. This gives her practice lifting her head, rolling over, pushing up on her hands and knees, and even starting to crawl.
Stationary activity centers: These toys are usually shaped like traditional baby walkers but lack wheels and keep your infant in one spot. The seats often swivel or allow Baby to bounce around.
Playpens: To keep Baby contained for a little while, consider a playpen (sometimes called a "play yard"). Never leave your baby in a mesh-sided playpen with the side lowered, though. And if the playpen has a raised changing table insert, remove it before putting Baby in to play.
High chairs: Need to keep Baby busy while you make dinner? The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests strapping older babies into a high chair to play with toys placed on the tray.
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