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Walker with Wheels No Deal for Tots

Claiming they're unsafe, pediatricians want devices banned

FRIDAY, Sept. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Baby walkers are not only all but useless, they're so dangerous they should no longer be made or sold, says the largest association of child doctors in the United States.

About 3 million wheeled baby walkers are bought each year, but the American Academy of Pediatrics, long opposed to the devices for safety reasons, has strongly reiterated its opposition in the current issue of Pediatrics. Warning labels, parent education, stair gates and other preventive measures all have failed to stem the walker-caused injuries in infants, the association says.

So, the 55,000-member group is calling for a ban on making and selling these devices because, they contend, it's almost impossible to supervise a baby in one.

"Baby walkers give kids incredible mobility -- three feet per second on smooth ground," says Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and an author of the policy paper. "At that rate, the most vigilant parent in the world couldn't move fast enough to prevent injury."

Further, the pediatricians' group also pokes holes in the urban legend that the devices help babies learn to walk. Rather, the article says, the walkers may, in fact, delay normal motor and mental development.

The devices were linked to 34 deaths from 1973 to 1998. In 1999 alone, the last year for which there are statistics, 8,800 children younger than 15 months were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the United States for injuries related to baby walkers, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those injuries, up to 96 percent happened when a child riding one fell down the stairs, the commission says.

The study by Smith, who's done research in the past on the subject, included 270 children brought into the emergency room at Children's Hospital. One out of every 10 of them had a skull fracture, three of the children had bleeding inside the brain and another three had depressed skull fractures.

"These are serious accidents," Smith says. "This is an incredible injury rate."

The consumer safety group points out that having an adult around doesn't make much difference: In 69 percent of all accidents, an adult was watching but couldn't move fast enough to save the child from harm.

The commission has refused to ban the devices altogether, but it has joined with the pediatric association in urging that they be replaced with non-mobile play stations.

The latest numbers actually represent a 56 percent decline in walker-related injuries since 1995, when 20,000 injuries were reported, apparently reflecting design improvements for the walkers. Adoption of the safer design is voluntary, but its use means the company can put a sticker on its product saying the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association certifies it. To comply, a walker must meet one of two requirements: It either must be too wide to fit through a standard doorway (about 36 inches), or it must have a brake to stop the rear wheels if the front ones go over a step.

About 40 percent of walker manufacturers don't belong to the trade association, and walkers that don't meet the standard continue to be sold in the United States, according to the association. Still, at least one major manufacturer of walkers has gotten out of the mobile business altogether. Evenflo now makes only non-mobile walkers, known as saucers. These devices spin, bounce and rock -- but don't go anywhere.

"Evenflo is committed to the safety of children, and we strongly believe in our saucers as a safe and fun alternative to traditional walkers," says Jim Ruehlmann, executive vice president of Evenflo marketing.

Smith says some parents cling to the walkers because they believe they strengthen legs and promote walking, but he thinks that's a myth, and says some preliminary research suggests that kids who spend a lot of time in walkers sit, crawl and walk later.

Smith, who is the father of a 3- and a 5-year-old, vouches for the saucer fun factor.

"My kids just loved them -- [and] they didn't miss the wheels," he says.

What To Do

Don't put your child in an infant walker, safety experts say, and you may save yourself a trip to the emergency room. And if have any doubts as to whether the devices have any redeeming value, take a look at what Seattle's Harborview Medical Center has to say on the subject.

And for information on choosing an array of safe products for your child -- from cribs to car seats to walkers -- go to KidsHealth, sponsored by the Nemours Foundation.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gary Smith, M.D., director, Center for Injury Research and Policy, Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio; Jim Ruehlmann, executive vice president for marketing, Evenflo Co. Inc., Piqua, Ohio; September 2001 Pediatrics
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