Babies who use walkers are likely to crawl, stand and walk at an older age than those who don't, says a small study appearing in tomorrow's issue of the British Medical Journal.
A spokeswoman for the industry that makes walkers dismisses the study as "junk," and says they help both children and their parents.
In a survey of 190 infants, researchers at Ireland's University College Dublin School of Physiotherapy found that, for each 24 hours that babies toddled along in walkers, their ability to walk independently was delayed by more than three days.
"Many parents believe the baby walker will advance standing and walking, but our research shows they're mistaken," says study author and physiotherapist Mary Garrett.
Out of the 190 infants in Garrett's sample group, 102 used walkers. On average, these children crawled at 5 months, stood independently at 8 months, and walked unaided at 8.5 months. This was in contrast to their non-walker counterparts, who crawled at 4.5 months, stood at 7.5 months, and walked at 8 months.
The research team calculated the three-day lapse per each 24-hour stretch from parental reports. Over an 18-month period, parents recorded the number of hours a day that their offspring scooted around their houses in their mobile playpens.
Other investigations have yielded conflicting results about whether walkers delay gross motor development, but Garrett says the researchers in those studies made no differentiation between crawling, standing and walking with support and unaided mobility.
That's a crucial difference, Garrett says: "It's walking and standing alone that was delayed in our study. We found no delay for walking and standing while holding on."
The reasons for the slowdown are unclear, but Garrett speculates that babies in walkers lack the benefits gained from crawling around the floor, an activity that strengthens the muscles used for walking.
Moreover, babies who use walkers don't see their legs in action. "It's also possible that it may be that the absence of information from the muscles to the central nervous system actually delays the maturation of the mechanism responsible for generating walking in children," Garrett says.
The bottom line, she declares, is baby walkers are a menace. "When you combine this study with other work that has shown these kids are at significantly greater risk for injury than kids who don't use walkers, it tells us that in order to promote good health and normal activity, parents should not use baby walkers."
Jennifer Szwalek, vice president of communications at the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, dismisses the study as "more junk science."
"They're dealing with a very small sample size and, based on their study, walkers don't prevent children from ever learning to walk," Szwalek says.
"To be honest with you," she adds, "the important thing to stress is the walkers are useful products. They keep children out of trouble and dangerous situations, and give parents a little freedom."
Garrett concedes that babies love walkers. She says they offer them independence, mobility and speed.
Nevertheless, she strongly advocates against their use, and advises parents who insist on buying them to equip their homes with safety devices, such as stair and oven guards, and locks for cabinets containing harmful substances or heavy objects.
Ever since revised manufacturing safety standards were implemented in the United States, injuries related to baby walkers have declined about 60 percent, from roughly 20,100 in 1995 to 8,800 in 1999, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
New models are wider to prevent babies from traveling through most doorways, and have grips to stop them at the edge of a step.
Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics contends that, despite the new and improved design, the devices are not accident-proof. It recommends parents opt for "stationary walkers," which have no wheels but do have seats that rotate and bounce.
What To Do
For more information about the hazards of baby walkers, go to the American Academy of Pediatrics. To learn more about choosing safe baby products, visit the Nemours Foundation or the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.