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You’ve soaked in your baby’s first smile and sweet cooing. They mastered tummy time long ago and control their head with ease. Now they’re sitting and scooting, crawling and standing.

All these milestones go by so quickly in the first year or so. And as your baby approaches their first birthday, they might even start cruising and — gasp — walking.

Here’s what you need to know about your baby’s gross motor development during this exciting time, how you can safely encourage walking, and some notes on what might be more harmful than helpful.

Babies often start walking around 12 months old, but this could certainly happen earlier or later, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). As with all things development, your baby will start walking on their own individual timeline.

You can help your little one move and groove no matter what stage your baby is at with walking. But the keyword here is stage. Babies don’t go from sitting to walking overnight.

There are many milestones you’ll likely hit along the way — standing supported, standing independently, cruising, first wobbly steps, and full-on walking.

Meet your baby where their abilities are. Work on their strengths and playfully address their weaknesses. That said, learning to walk takes time. Resist rushing the process.

Before anything else, you need to set your baby up for success:

  • Clear your floors from clutter that could present tripping hazards.
  • Move fragile decorative items someplace else.
  • Put on outlet covers and corral excess cords.

And if you’re finding babyproofing your entire house difficult, close off rooms that are particularly tricky or consider creating a safe space by gating off an area of your house that’s free from danger.

Why it helps: Even if your baby isn’t walking, encouraging mobility means that they’ll be into anything and everything in their path. Babyproofing will protect them from injury and probably give you both some added confidence along the way.

You’ve probably heard the old saying that you must walk before you can run. Well, you must sit before you can walk. Basically, this means that your baby needs strong core muscles to support standing and walking.

You might even consider having your baby sit on a tiny stool (or bench, foam roller, cube chair) with their feet on the floor (supervised, of course!). Ask them to reach for toys on the ground to practice moving up and down and all around.

Why it helps: Moving in this way allows your baby to practice transitions, like rising to standing. With cruising and pulling up, your baby tends to use the strength in their upper body. Sitting on a stool puts the focus on the legs and developing strength in the lower body. It also emphasizes placing the feet under the body for support.

Shoes aren’t needed for early walking. In fact, it may be better to let your child explore their environment barefoot at first.

Babies get a lot of information from their feet when they’re learning to walk. They feel the texture of different surfaces — hardwood, carpet, grass — and their brain adjusts the way their muscles and joints act accordingly.

Of course, before you have your baby walk around without shoes, you’ll want to ensure there are no objects that could injure their feet (see step 1).

Why it helps: It’s called proprioceptive feedback. Shoes may dull the messages your baby’s brain gets about what surfaces are underfoot. Not only that, but walking barefoot helps to strengthen the muscles in the foot to further increase stability.

If you want to lead your little one on a small walking excursion around the living room, do so by supporting their trunk and not their hands.

When you support their trunk, you help your baby develop a more natural gait and one that’s not tilted forward onto the toes. Babies need to distribute weight throughout their entire foot — including the heel — to develop a strong pattern of motion throughout the lower body.

Why it helps: Again, leading with hands means your baby tilts forward and doesn’t bear weight evenly through the legs and feet. Be sure to let your baby be in control as they take steps — even if they’re very slow at first.

Your baby may need some extra motivation to get moving. Try sitting on the floor with them. Take one of their favorite toys or stuffed animals and hold it out a couple steps in front of them.

As your baby’s mobility increases, consider placing toys in a trail throughout a room to see if they’ll move around from one toy to the next. Rotate toys every so often to keep it fresh.

Why it helps: This activity works with both crawling and walking — and both movements are beneficial when it comes to developing gross motor skills ultimately needed to walk. Basically, you’re giving your child a reason to move throughout the space they’re in. It turns the hard work of walking into a fun game.

Much of walking is focused on forward motion. But it’s also beneficial to move up and down. When your baby reaches for items, the legs must take on the task of balancing and supporting the body.

You can get your child reaching by blowing bubbles above their head. You might also try moving your baby’s toys to different surfaces at different heights in your playroom. A low, open shelving unit is a good choice that gives your child both a full view and easy access to toys.

Why it helps: Moving their body up high and down low gets your little one into a squat position. Squatting is an essential motion that builds lower body strength and teaches your baby to transfer weight while standing.

If your baby pulls to stand quite easily, the next step might be cruising furniture like sofas and coffee tables. By doing this, your little one is moving and shifting their weight from one piece of furniture to the next.

Over time, cruising sessions may become longer and provide a lot of practice on foot, increasing their overall stamina.

Why it helps: Cruising is a type of supported walking that works the muscles in the hips and thighs. Over time, your baby will rely much less on their hands or possibly forget they need the added support at all.

Mini shopping carts, baby strollers, and other push toys provide another opportunity for supported walking on the go.

When choosing a push toy, you’ll want to make sure it’s sturdy and provides enough resistance on whatever type of flooring you have. Read reviews, as some work better on carpet versus hardwood floors and vice versa.

Note that push toys are powered by your baby. Some move faster than others. If you’re concerned about that, consider buying one that allows you to weight it for slower motion.

Why it helps: Push toys allow your baby to gain some independence while still having added “dynamic support” they need as they move through the stages of walking. They also offer fun activities to encourage movement in other ways, like squatting and reaching.

You might entice your little cruiser to walk on their own by handing them a toy or two. Think small, lightweight items, like egg shakers or small bean bags.

If they’re cruising along, start by handing them one toy and then add another. Or you might consider a larger (but still light) stuffed animal that needs two hands to carry. Whatever you do, the key is to make it bi-manual work — which is just a fancy way of saying that your baby uses both hands.

Why it helps: Occupying your baby’s hands shifts focus from supported motion, like cruising. When your baby is holding an object, they’ll be less likely to reach out for support and more likely to work on balance in the trunk and lower body.

If the floor gets boring, take your show to the staircase. Obviously, you’ll want to be very close to your baby while doing this activity. Let your child slowly climb up the stairs using their hands, knees, and feet. This is a total body workout that gets all the muscles.

If you don’t have stairs in your home, a ramp also works. (You can purchase a foam ramp that can be used for a variety of gross motor activities for less than $100).

Why it helps: Climbing stairs lets your baby strengthen their trunk and leg muscles. Not only that, but it also allows for what’s called “lower body dissociation.” This means your baby can start to separate upper body movement from lower body movement.

Above all else, avoid pushing your baby to walk. Your child may show some signs they’re ready, but it can take a long time to get everything with the brain and body coordinated. Celebrate the small successes and meet your child at their ability level when trying to help them reach the next big milestone.

And while they may sound good in theory, baby walkers are actually considered quite dangerous. Walkers are different from push toys. They’re devices that babies sit inside of instead of stand behind. They also have wheels on the base that move freely as your baby pushes off with their feet.

Sounds entertaining, but think of it this way: You place a young baby in a device with wheels on the bottom. As a result, a baby who isn’t mobile has the ability to move about a room somewhat quickly.

Babies have been injured in walkers by rolling down staircases, rolling into uncovered pools, getting burns from electrical outlets, and grabbing heavy or hot items off counters.

Aside from these dangers, walkers are not recommended for use by the AAP. They also aren’t proven to help with walking. Using them may even result in a baby developing an abnormal walking pattern, like toe-walking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that you should let your pediatrician know if your baby isn’t walking by the time they’re 18 months old. Even then, it’s not necessarily a reason to worry. Some babies may just need some extra help getting on their feet.

Your child’s doctor may refer you to your state’s Early Intervention program. If not, a referral isn’t needed. Simply call your area’s program and say: “I’m worried about my child’s development and would like to have them evaluated to find out if they’re eligible for early intervention services.”

From there, your child will be evaluated to see if they’re eligible to receive services. With walking, services usually involve physical therapy to work on gross motor skills. Your child’s plan will be catered to their specific needs.

Ready or not, your baby will be walking before you know it. There are many things you can do to gently encourage your child’s movement and build the muscles needed to support their body with this new way of getting around.

If you have concerns about your baby’s progress toward this milestone, contact your pediatrician or consider scheduling an evaluation with Early Intervention. But remember that some babies start walking early, others start later, and your child will get there with time and practice.