When should a baby start to walk?

Fiona Sandiford
Practical Parenting

Thinkstock

When it comes to taking their first steps, some babies sprint towards the finish line, while others are more tortoise-like. “There’s no absolute time for starting to walk, but the normal range is nine to 17 months,” confirms Dr Jacqueline Dalby-Payne, a consultant paediatrician at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. And just as bubs find their feet at different times, they do so in different ways. From making like a ballerina to doing the bum-shuffle, let’s take a stroll through the different ways little people like to put their best foot forward…

The Early Walker
All parents look forward to the day their baby will hit that major milestone of independence: taking her first step. And for mum Anna, it came earlier than most.

Her daughter, Hayley, now four, first walked at nine months. “I was amazed at how strong her little body was from birth,” says Anna. “She could hold her head up and loved bouncing on her legs from just a few weeks old. She was crawling around by six months and took her first steps at nine. By 10 months she was walking independently. My mother told me I was an early walker myself, so I wondered if it might be hereditary.”

Many proud parents are thrilled when their little ones get going earlier than the average, but Dr Dalby-Payne says that while early walking isn’t a cause for concern, it is likewise not necessarily a sign your child is more advanced than others. If yours is an early mover, she advises you child-proof your home a little earlier, securing cupboards and moving potentially dangerous items up beyond your bub’s reach. She adds, “As far as I know, the time a baby starts to walk is not hereditary, unless there is an inherited genetic muscle problem that results in delayed walking.”

The Late Walker
Not all children are in a hurry to get on their feet – many, in fact, like to take their own sweet time. Declan, now nearly four, didn’t start to walk until he was 17 months, says mum Michelle.

“At about 10 months he started to drag himself along with his arms, then started crawling after his first birthday. In my mums’ group, all the other babies were walking way before him. When I took him for his one-year check-up, the nurse thought he might have weakness in one of his arms so she referred him to a physio, who reassured me there was nothing wrong with him. When we first saw him walk we were delighted. Now Declan has great coordination and loves gymnastics and soccer.”

“Most normal children will walk before they reach 18 months,” says Dr Dalby-Payne. “Delayed walking could be due to a problem with the muscles or nervous system, and can also be impacted on by the child’s general state of health and nutrition. It’s important to identify if other areas of development are also delayed in order to make clear a cause. If you are concerned that your child is walking late then see your doctor. A paediatric physiotherapist can often help optimise gross motor development in children with a delay.”

The Bum Shuffler
When other mums’ babies were crawling at nine months, Sarah confesses she was worried. Although her daughter, Charlotte, now six, got plenty of tummy time, she wasn’t interested in crawling. “Then at 14 months she started shuffling around on her bum,” Sarah remembers. “We were living in England at the time and saw a specialist who suggested we try some special shoes to help stabilise her ankles. They didn’t work, but she seemed content enough shuffling both backwards and forwards, propelling herself along with her arms.” When Charlotte was 16 months, and with the family now living in Australia, Sarah saw another specialist who reassured her. “He said it wasn’t an issue until 18 months, and in the meantime to do nothing.” And just as well. “At 17 months she started walking, and we caught it on video!” Sarah beams.

It’s not a cause for concern if your baby starts moving like this – it’s just a different way of crawling. Dr Dalby-Payne has a theory as to why some bum shufflers tend to walk a little later than average, too. “Bum shufflers can get around while carrying things in their hands, whereas a crawler can’t do both, so there’s less incentive for the bum shuffler to actually get up on their feet,” she says.

The Tippy-toer
At 14 months, Lisa’s son, Curtis, was crawling, but then started to walk on his toes. “He did this on and off for about five weeks and was quite confident and mobile in his soft, leathery shoes,” Lisa recalls. “Then I put him in sandals and he started walking using the soles of his feet.”

Lisa took Curtis, who’s now four, to see a specialist recently because “he’s a little knock-kneed and he twists his feet outwards a bit like a frog when he walks,” she explains. “They’ve told me his knees will probably correct themselves by age seven, while his feet will always be like that and it may make him a little flat-footed later on,” Lisa says. “Curtis climbs and swims very successfully. In fact, one orthopaedic surgeon noted that he’ll probably have an excellent breast stroke kick!”

“Toe walking is occasionally seen in toddlers and young children,” says Dr Dalby-Payne. “It can be a sign of leg muscle and tendon tightness but is sometimes behavioural. If your child is toe walking, most of the time they should be seen by a doctor. Treatments for the muscle tightness will often involve stretching exercises, but in more severe cases plasters may need to be applied to stretch the tendons and muscles, or surgery may even be required.”

The Knee Walker
Another way – albeit an unusual one – to get around is to ‘walk’ on your knees. Sophie, now three, waited until she was 13 months to crawl, and before she eventually started walking at 18 months she preferred to get about on her knees.

“Her body from knees to head was upright while she motored around. It was very sturdy and purposeful,” mum Narelle explains. “It was clear other people were unsure about what she was doing, but she moved her legs to show delight so I knew the muscles worked. She was just cautious about walking on her feet until she felt confident.”

“It’s very unusual for infants to use knee walking as their primary form of mobility,” says Dr Bev Eldridge, director of physiotherapy at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. “In all instances where I’ve seen it occur, it’s been a transition between moving around on the floor and standing, unless the child has a diagnosis that affects the development of the legs. In some cases we’ve seen children who have tight calf muscles, which has made it difficult for them to stand flat on their feet to walk, but it is often unclear whether this has been caused by the posture of their feet while moving around in a kneeling position or was the reason they chose to knee walk,” she says.

“There are conditions, such cerebral palsy and spina bifida, that will cause abnormal development of the muscles in the feet and ankles and this may be one reason why children knee walk, but sometimes there is nothing wrong with the child’s legs and they will go on to walk on two feet in their own time.”

As always, if you’re concerned you should seek medical advice, but, reminds Dr Eldridge, “it’s important to appreciate that it’s not uncommon for infants to find unusual ways of moving about in the first two years of life while they are experimenting with and refining their motor skills.”

The Cruiser
Some kids are so keen to get going that they start to ‘cruise’ as soon as they can pull themselves up, using furniture to support themselves as they walk about. That’s what happened when Sarah’s son, Nicholas, now three, was just seven months old, and he preferred it to crawling. “At first he pulled himself up using the coffee table,” she says. “By eight months he was cruising quite well using whatever was available, even the family dog occasionally!”

Nicholas would only crawl when he ran out of furniture to grab on to. “I was a little worried because he cruised for ages without progressing to walking, but I knew it wasn’t a real concern until 18 months,” adds Sarah. “And it was fantastic when we saw him take his first steps at 13 months, just a few days before Christmas.”

“Cruising is another variant of normal,” says Dr Dalby-Payne. “Most babies crawl first – these babies are just a bit quicker.” It’s only something to worry about if you subsequently notice an unexplained regression in your child’s development, she says. “It’s not unusual for babies to get a bit unsteady when they’re ill, for example, but if yours starts falling over more than usual, see your doctor.”

What’s normal?
“In paediatrics, generally we expect babies to walk around one year of age, but 17 months is still within the normal range,” reminds Dr Dalby-Payne. Here’s a rough timeline for some important motor milestones:
5 to 6 months Bub learns to roll over (usually both ways)
6 to 8 months Bub can sit unsupported
9 months Crawling begins (either ‘commando’ style or bum shuffling)
9 to 12 months Cruising starts
12 months Bub’s first step