Are walking rings really that bad?

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The Sealy blog is one of the spaces that we answer our facebook fans questions. We love helping you to sleep and live better… so ask away!

Facebook fan asks: My child is in their first year and we were given a walking ring by a friend. Are walking rings really that bad? I am dying to see my little man running about!

walking ring copyImage courtesy parent24

Here is Roxanne Atkinson, a Paediatric Occupational Therapist's response: Giving a baby a walking ring is like giving an eight-year-old the keys to a car. Neither the kid nor the baby have had the chance to develop the underlying skills necessary to use these devices safely.

The short answer is that walking rings should be banned (and are in some countries).

Here is the long answer...

There are many wise sayings like: "You must learn to walk before you can run" and "everything in it's own good time." Babies need the time they spend lying horizontally to prepare them for the time they spend walking vertically. Please do not rush your baby to walk, especially through the use of a walking ring. Babies that have used walking rings will walk on their toes, as they are not used to controlling their pelvis and so 'fix' themselves upright by using other muscles, like the ones in their arms and neck. This poor form leads to considerable postural problems later in life.

In addition, a baby that uses a walking ring to learn to walk usually skips crawling altogether.

Like all skills we need to develop, there is usually a series of steps that must be followed. Picture a tower that is being built brick by brick. Yes, one or two missing bricks is no big deal, but take too many bricks away and the tower will fall.

Crawling is the culmination of a series of GREAT developmental achievements. These include learning to lift one's head against gravity, learning to use the hands together as well as separately, learning to use the legs together as well as separately and learning to co-ordinate a pretty complex movement pattern that uses all limbs and both sides of the body. Good crawling is rhythmic and efficient. Babies gain freedom, but from a low height.

For struggle is a critical part of development and so bumps and grazes are essential learning blocks. However, bumps and grazes from a four-point position often end a lot more happily than bumps and grazes from an upright position or worse, an upright, hanging, running position that is the walking ring. Walking rings are renowned for helping babies launch head first down stairs and pull appliances off counters.

If a walking ring must be used, please do not leave your baby unsupervised as they will be an incredibly dangerous driver. They will have speed, but no control or awareness, which is a recipe for disaster.

A better option is a little patience and giving your baby the best chance to crawl long before he walks or runs as crawling has significant benefits for your baby's BRAIN, BONES and MUSCLES.

little crawler copy

1. How crawling benefits your baby's brain.

Crawling requires that both hemispheres of the brain work together and integrate the information they receive from the four limbs, head and trunk. The right hemisphere receives information from the left side and the left hemisphere receives information from the right side. Each hemisphere is also responsible to feedback instructions to the opposite side.

Between the two hemispheres is a thick band called the corpus collosum. The more often that information 'crosses over' from the right to the left hemisphere and visa versa, the thicker this band grows. This 'thickness' is caused by the rapid growth of nerve cells.

In the first year of life there is an explosion of new nerve cells which allow your baby to develop all kinds of skills. At the end of the first year of life, their is a massive culling that takes place. Any nerve cells that were not used and any pathways that proved inefficient die out. Whilst this sounds like a bad thing, this death actually promotes coordination and speed as the baby has a higher quality operating system with less interference.

This is why it is not uncommon for babies that do not learn to crawl in the first year to never learn to crawl. The 'crawling' pathways have been left unstimulated and so fade away.

So whilst crawling is a temporary skill, necessary for only a few months of one's life, it is the period when the corpus collosum thickens so that the brain can work in a coordinated way for the many, many years to come.

The other way that the brain benefits from crawling is in terms of perceptual skills. Crawling gives the brain a chance to develop:

  • body awareness as your baby learns how big, high and wide they are
  • spatial awareness as your baby learns how far away is the couch, how high is the step
  • left-right discrimination as your baby learns that they have a left and a right side and establishes a dominant side
  • depth perception as your baby learns how far away things are by traveling towards them and
  • sensory awareness as crawling sends multi-sensory messages to the sensory cortex as the hands, knees and feet press into the floor, the muscles tighten and relax and the fluid of the inner ear rolls around telling the brain which direction the body is moving.

The brain is greatly altered by crawling as are the bones and muscles.

2. How crawling benefits your baby's bones.

Babies don't have the same bony skeleton that you do. For example, they are born with soft skulls, no wrist bones, open hip joints and no knee caps and thin feet with pointy heels. Instead, their joints are cartilaginous and form over time dependent on the forces that influence them.

Muscles pulling on a bone via their ropey tendons will change the shape of the bone as will the weight of a baby's body. From birth baby's must battle against gravity after a blissful, weightless existence.

Here is how crawling benefits your babies skeletal development:

  • Wrist joints - Your baby will gain one wrist bone a year for roughly the first 12 years of his life. These bones will be changed as your baby puts weight through their hand into the floor. Changed in a good way that will help him have stable wrists for protecting himself from falling as well as playing sports as he grows.
  • The arches of the hand - Your baby's weight through their hand causes their hand bones to 'spread' out and you will notice that your baby is developing creases in their palm as they use their hand to support themselves and reach for objects. These arches allow the hand to fold and hold in various ways which make their hands useful tools.
  • The hip joint - As some of your baby's weight is taken through its pelvis, the previously flat hip joint curves to kiss the neck of the long thigh bone (known as the femur). This curvature gives the hip joint stability which is ideal before the baby attempts to put their full weight through their pelvis in standing.

3. How crawling benefits your baby's muscle development.

Spend some time down on your hands and knees and you will learn that crawling offers a unique whole body workout. The areas that are most notably tired after a few minutes? All of them!

That's because crawling strengthens the muscle of the neck, shoulders, back, stomach, hips, legs and arms.

  • Head control - Crawling calls on the muscles at the back of the neck and back to contract and hold up the head and body against gravity.
  • Shoulder stability - Crawling strengthens the muscles between the shoulder blades pulling the shoulder blades flat onto the back (rather than projecting upwards like a cat). This change is key to gaining shoulder stability which protects the child in a fall, against a ball, or against punch. It also allows a child to take on an upright posture where the arm is free to act as an arm rather than a leg that is used to support the body's weight.
  • Pelvic stability - Crawling changes the muscles of the pelvis and stomach. Before a baby crawls its bottom will point up and its tummy will sag causing a severe curve in its lower spine. Crawling tightens up these core muscles and pulls the bottom out of the air and down towards the floor. Again, this is key for a baby destined to stand and require good pelvic stability to walk, run and kick.
  • Wrist stability - Crawling causes stable wrist joints with strong muscles at the back of the forearm known as wrist extensors. Baby's that do not crawl often have poor wrist stability and so battle to carry a plate or use a bat to hit a ball. This stability is key for more complex fine motor tasks like writing and cutting.

So, walking rings are a NO and time on the floor to promote crawling is a big YES.

Babies usually start crawling between 6 and 9 months.

Walking is only considered delayed if it occurs after 18 months.

If your baby is 9 months old and not yet crawling or has skipped crawling altogether then it may be wise to contact an Occupational or Physiotherapist that specialises in Early Childhood Intervention or Neuro-Developmental Therapy to assist you to discover where your baby may have one or two building blocks out of place.

Furthermore, if your child is older and did not crawl he/she may still benefit from crawling around pretending to be different animals and/or other activities that promote physical and cognitive development such as swimming, ballet, karate, climbing trees and playing musical instruments.

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