In the 1970s, a time when the market for infant walkers was booming, babies were showing up in the emergency room nearly every day after falling from the walkers with injuries like broken bones, concussions, and skull fractures. “We were constantly telling parents not to use them,” said Dr. Gary Smith, the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
If you’re not familiar, baby walkers are those wheeled devices that allow kids to push themselves around before they can walk. Once they get going, they can crash into things — or down stairs. In the early 1990s, some 20,000 kids were showing up in emergency rooms every year with injuries, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.
Over the past two decades, safety standards, like making sure walkers were wider than door frames so kids couldn’t just tumble down stairs, have gone into effect. And savvy companies since put out safer alternatives (like stationary activity centers). So walker-related injuries have fallen off dramatically.
But still, about 2,000 kids get treated in US emergency rooms for walker-related injuries every year, the Pediatrics study found.
The baby walker hazard has disappeared in Canada. That’s because Canada decided long ago that it wasn’t enough to just reduce the risk of baby walkers — it needed to eliminate it.
A government review of walker-related injuries found kids were falling down stairs, flipping over, and crashing into hot stoves on these devices. So as of April 2004, Health Canada, the government’s health regulator, banned the sale of baby walkers entirely. People caught selling or importing baby walkers — even used ones — face $100,000 fines or even jail time. Try to cross the border with a baby walker, and you face detention.
The measures might sound extreme, but they’ve worked. And pediatricians here want US regulators to follow Canada’s lead.
Will the baby walker ban reach America?
In the new Pediatrics report, Smith and his co-authors note the tremendous drop-off in walker-related injuries in the study period, between 1990 and 2014. But even 2,000 kids showing up in emergency rooms every year because of baby walkers is still too many.
“Infant walker-related injuries can be severe and can include skull fracture, brain injury, burns, poisoning, and drowning,” the authors wrote. A previous study found that, between 2004 to 2008, infant walkers were implicated in eight pediatric deaths.
Baby walkers are often marketed to parents as devices that’ll help kids walk independently sooner, even though the evidence suggests they may actually delay the onset of walking. And not only are they not helpful to a baby’s development, but they can be extremely harmful.
According to the study, most baby walker-related injuries — 90 percent — in the emergency room involved the head or neck, and three-quarters were caused by babies in walkers falling down stairs. Five percent of the children had to be admitted to the hospital because their injuries were so severe.
“We now know what the remaining burden is for walkers,” Smith, one of the authors on the paper, told Vox, “and the next step is let’s eliminate the problem.”
When I asked why the US hasn’t yet followed Canada’s lead, he said it’s a matter of philosophy. The US decided their approach would be “risk reduction,” instead of getting the heavy hand of government involved in a ban, while Canada felt the government had to intervene to eliminate the devices.
“Canada has said, ‘We know there’s no benefit to the use of walkers. Babies can move up to 4 feet a second, far before they can control that or understand the dangers. Why are we putting children in harm’s way when we know that when these injuries occur, they can be life threatening?’”
For now, Smith advised US parents to beware of walkers and opt for the “good old fashioned” baby dive. “Just put your baby on the belly on the floor,” he said. “They learn to push themselves up and walk that way.”
And don’t try to smuggle a walker into Canada.