Walking. It’s perhaps the biggest milestone in your toddler’s young life. Countless movies, TV shows and commercials depict those first wobbly steps as one of parenthood’s greatest joys. Becoming a biped marks the official transition from babyhood to toddlerhood.
Most kids take their first steps between 9 and 15 months. But what if 15 months have come and gone, and your little crawler is still showing no signs of readiness to walk?
We found ourselves facing this dilemma last summer. Our son, Elliott, was a late crawler and consistently measured above the 96th percentile for height, weight and head size. So we didn’t expect him to be walking by his first birthday. In fact, at that time, he was still doing an adorable army crawl with his belly on the floor. Our second baby was due five months later, so we assumed he had ample time to become independently mobile before I had to start lugging his sibling around too.
Yet Elliott was still nowhere near walking by the time the baby was born.
I kept telling myself that this was normal. That some kids are just late walkers. That he was too focused on learning new words (surprising us with additions to his vocabulary on a daily basis) to be bothered with it.
Everyone I talked to seemed to echo this sentiment: “Oh, he’ll walk when he’s ready.” “Some kids are just more sedentary.” “One day he’ll take off and start running.” “He’s so close; any day now!”
At Elliott’s checkups, his pediatrician didn’t seem concerned. She figured his increased bulk and disproportionately large head made it more challenging for him to stay upright. Some kids, she explained, just aren’t motivated to try. And that seemed to fit with his personality – cautious, analytical and cerebral (thanks to that big brain!).
But still the weeks dragged on with no progress. And, deep down, I still felt that something was off.
I trusted my gut and scheduled him for an evaluation with a pediatric physical therapist. Sure enough, she quickly spotted numerous ways in which Elliott’s gross motor skills were delayed. He couldn’t squat, for example. He didn’t bend his knees when taking steps with a push toy. His balance was little better than a drunken sailor’s. And, perhaps due to that imbalance, he had a tremendous fear of falling that kept him from venturing steps on his own. The therapist also pointed out that his feet were curved inward – a condition that I had as a baby, and that would require bracing to stabilize.
Despite the diagnosis of gross motor delays, I came away from the appointment surprisingly relieved. I wasn’t just being an over-anxious mom; I had been correct in thinking something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t just a matter of motivation. Our son had identifiable problems that contributed to his delayed walking.
Fortunately, those problems were fixable through ongoing physical therapy – but it would take time. The first step was getting his braces (supra malleolar orthotics or “SMOs”). He also wore a compression suit to help stabilize his posture. While attending his twice weekly therapy sessions, I learned how to help him strengthen the right muscle groups through active play, essentially making him work without him realizing it.
With much effusive encouragement, Elliott soon started taking short, hesitant shuffles between my husband and I. Eventually he figured out that he could take independent steps without cheering arms waiting for him.
It didn’t happen overnight. Still skittish about falling, he would quit trying for days at a time after a harmless tumble crushed his confidence. More than a month passed between those first shaky steps and full-fledged ambulation.
Those long weeks seemed like an eternity, Of course, in the grand scheme of life, delayed walking isn’t something to lose sleep over. It doesn’t compare to the heart-wrenching trials of childhood cancer or the lifelong implications of conditions like cerebral palsy. But that doesn’t stop it from tugging on the delicate strings of a sensitive mother’s heart. I became acutely aware of all the quintessential toddler activities my son should have been enjoying: playgrounds, splash pads, bouncy houses. I teared up when Elliott eagerly watched his peers playing at the park, wanting so badly to join them but unable to keep up. I couldn’t help but think he was missing out. An entire new world awaited his inquisitive mind, and he was just a few shaky steps away from it.
Now, several months after that first evaluation, Elliott motors around the house on his own two feet like he’s been doing it since birth. Watching him discover the wonders of walking has indeed been one of the greatest joys of parenthood so far. Although his stability rivals that of his peers, he still lags behind on critical skills. He can’t kick a ball or navigate stairs. He avoids squatting and climbing (I’ll admit I’m guiltily grateful for the latter). And there’s no barefoot running around the house. Apart from when he’s sleeping, Elliott has to wear his braces and shoes around the clock, which will likely be the case for at least a year.
Had I not trusted my instincts and contacted a physical therapist, I’m not sure where we would be today. Certainly my back would be in rougher shape from toting around a toddler for so long. Perhaps some of Elliott’s delays would have self-corrected eventually, but more likely, they would have set him on a path of increasing impediments.
Conversely, I often wonder why we didn’t take Elliott in sooner. Had he started wearing the braces earlier — perhaps around six months, as I did as a baby — he could have been walking, running and climbing well before 20 months.
If you’re in the same boat, don’t rely on your pediatrician alone, and don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. Consider contacting a pediatric physical therapist for an evaluation. Maybe, like Elliott, your little one is hindered by fixable issues that keep getting overlooked.
Yes, every child is different. And there’s no shame in being a late walker. Your child will eventually walk when ready; he or she might just need a little extra help to get there.