"Walking is a common concern for young parents because they feel walking is related to intelligence," says Brenda Nixon, parenting expert and author of The Birth to Five Book. "It's the old, 'My baby is smarter because he walked at 10 months,' thinking. Walking is related to a tot's temperament and opportunity, not intelligence."
Are They Really Late?
Most parents expect their child to start walking around her first birthday, but the normal age range actually varies from as young as 9 months up to 18 months. Within this normal range, a child may be closer to the 18-month end for a couple of reasons—mainly lack of opportunity, genetics, and temperament.
"Often parents tell me their 13-month-old isn't walking, and my question is, 'Do you give her the opportunity?'" Nixon says. "I advise parents not to whisk up their tot and walk out the door; rather, hold her hand and let her walk herself. Also, I encourage parents to hold their child's hand and slowly walk through the house, outdoors and to the car, or allow their tot to hold the side of a grocery cart and toddle along with them in the store. This is the opportunity and practice tots need."
Other times, babies are content just to take their time. Judy Nichols, a mom from Wilmington, North Carolina, worried when her daughter wasn't walking at 18 months. Her daughter developed normally otherwise—she was happy and said more than 35 words—and her pediatrician assured her she had nothing to worry about.
"When my daughter was 19 months old, she would walk if someone held her hand, but not by herself," says Nichols, who was a late walker herself. "Then after two or three weeks of that, she just got up on her feet and walked as if she'd been doing it for months. I think she just didn't want to fall. Or she was concentrating on learning how to talk and didn't see much point in walking."
When Should You Be Concerned?
While most late walkers are fine, healthy children, there are developmental reasons for missing this milestone. "Some children with neuromuscular, genetic, or metabolic disorders may walk late due to an underlying medical condition," says Dr. Daniel Brennan, a pediatrician at the Sansum Clinic and Cottage Children's Hospital in Santa Barbara, California. "Other children may walk late due to an underlying orthopedic problem, such as hip dysplasia. These children can be evaluated by their pediatrician and a pediatric orthopedist."
What's important to realize is that motor development progresses throughout infancy, and children with gross motor development issues will start exhibiting these delays immediately. "Usually if a child is a late walker, then he was a late sitter," says Dr. Peter Greenspan, the associate chief and medical director for MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. Major gross motor development milestones include head control at 4 months and sitting at 6 to 8 months.
When little ones fall behind their peers, parents can't help worrying. But in most cases, late walking is no reason for concern. "Children focus on different skills at different times, so there is a wide range of normal," says Helen Neville, a nurse specialist and author of Is This a Phase? Child Development and Parenting Strategies, Birth to 6 Years. "When a child is late with a particular milestone, there may or may not be specific things the parents should do to help. Sometimes just waiting is exactly the right thing, and sometimes early help is very important. That's why an evaluation of your individual child with a knowledgeable professional is so important."