You might wonder why your toddler runs into so many things as she is learning to walk. Her perceptual system is different and not fully developed. She doesn’t scope out everything that is in the way before taking off across the room. She’s more interested in where she’s going than how she’s getting there. As a result, there will be many mishaps.
Think of your little girl as having a one-track mind at this stage. She cannot plot her course and strategize going around things while she’s learning to manage those rubbery legs. She just takes off for the sheer exuberance of movement and lets the chips fall where they may.
Toddler bodies are roly-poly in order to cushion those numerous falls. And keep in mind, she’s much closer to the floor than you are. You can ease the pain and insult of tumbles by dressing your little one in long pants during the earlier stages of walking. A little fabric over the knee can prevent the skin from getting scraped every time there’s a fall.
It might be fun to set up a room in your home with mostly pillows and a soft rug or carpet. Your toddler can explore the space with her new-found skill without hurting herself.
Difficulty coordinating large and small muscle groups and a lack of clarity about physical boundaries cause clumsiness—and both are basic characteristics of toddlers! The usual solution is years of practice. The school of hard knocks will teach them exactly where their body leaves off and the rest of the world begins.
Controlled rocking in a rocking chair requires subtle flexing movements that are hard for toddlers. Practice sessions are good physical therapy and help develop coordination and motor control. But if rowdiness persists, make the rocker off-limits and substitute an active game to burn off some high-octane toddler energy.
However, some toddlers have a high threshold for pain, so the usual bumps and bruises don’t teach them to stop before colliding with the chair, the end table, or the ground—or even with themselves. They step on their own feet and their own hand clunks them in the jaw. They may cry each time it happens, but they are so readily distracted that they forget to watch what they’re doing and the same or similar accidents keep recurring. “Careful!” “Look out! “Don’t hurt yourself!” “Next time, watch where you’re going,” their parents repeat as these seeming daredevils continue to knock and scrape and batter themselves in their heedlessly rough-and-tumble play.
But children aren’t daredevils if they don’t comprehend the risk. Warnings work only if youngsters know what to do to prevent another injury. They learn from their mistakes only if they remember what went wrong last time and can figure out what to do differently to avoid a repetition of the problem when the same situation arises.
If warnings and frequent bumps don’t slow your youngster down, provide comfort after she’s been injured, and then encourage her to repeat the same movement, but this time without hurting herself. Praise her for being successful. Multiplied over many situations, this kind of concentrated teaching can help toddlers tune in to the position of their body and be more aware of the proximity of their limbs, head, and torso to other objects. Meanwhile, encourage better body awareness by combining song and movement, such as in “The Hokey Pokey.” This familiar childhood song helps the toddler isolate particular parts of the body and gain a little more self-control.
Some experts say swimming lessons before age four don’t help children learn faster because of the limitations of their central nervous system and muscle development. Still, water babies’ classes can be lots of fun and will encourage them to stretch their little muscles.
Style and Grace
Some toddlers try quite unique ways of getting around once they’re up on two feet. Your little one may tiptoe around like a ballerina for days and days. It’s nothing to worry about, unless she is unable to keep her feet flat on the floor when she’s squatting. She won’t be a prima ballerina forever. It’s just a way to experiment with various sensations in the foot and leg, while she’s learning how it all works.
Your toddler might walk pigeon-toed or waddle with an endearing Charlie Chaplin gait. These phases are temporary as well. If it seems that the unusual style is persisting, you can check with your pediatrician, but usually it’s not a problem. Sometimes these ways of placing the feet give your toddler a better sense of balance.
Your little one may goose-step like a head majorette until she learns that such high stepping isn’t necessary to take the next stride. When it’s all new, it may seem like an extraordinary feat to get those legs to move in an alternating fashion.
Once your toddler is movin’ and groovin’ you have to be alert every waking moment, as potentials for mishaps are much greater than when she was on all fours. Perhaps an example will help you understand just how a toddler’s mind and body interact. If a toddler is reaching for a freshly iced cake sitting on the table and hears her mother yelling, “Don’t touch!” her natural response is to turn her face toward the sound. Then, when she sees that Mother is addressing her, she must figure out what she’s trying to tell her. Once she comprehends that her mother’s words refer to her hand reaching for the cake and realizes that she wants her to stop, she must figure out which muscles to contract and which to relax to get that little hand to drop to her lap. By then, the hand may well be covered with icing.
Walkers do not help babies to walk faster. In fact, most authorities suggest that you not bother with them. An estimated 29,000 children each year have an accident in rolling walkers serious enough to send them to an emergency room! You don’t need your baby to be playing bumper cars with everything in the house.
It’s understandable that a parent who doesn’t have a grasp of toddler development gets very upset in this situation. After all, she said, “Don’t touch,” and her toddler looked straight at her and stuck her hand in the cake. It’s tough enough to have the problem of a ruined cake and an icing-covered toddler. The anger that comes from believing the toddler has purposely misbehaved can cause the mother to punish her child, which leaves the toddler feeling upset without even understanding what she did wrong. So instead of attributing evil intentions to toddlers’ misbehavior, be considerate of their inability to process information quickly, and be patient!
Think of the fact that there’s a time delay in the child’s processing of information. You may see this, also, in a delayed reaction when the child falls down. It takes a few seconds for her brain to interpret the pain signals, which are arriving from a different part of the body than she had expected. It will take another few seconds for the brain to communicate with the throat and eyes so she can let out a large wail and begin to cry. Don’t conclude that your child isn’t hurt because she didn’t start crying at once! If the child isn’t injured, provide comfort by helping her up and telling her she’s okay. Let her think through what just happened rather than admonishing her to “be more careful.” A toddler won’t understand what that means, as she has no context for those words. Just comfort her and reassure her in her courageous explorations. To avoid collisions, clear an area of your home where your toddler can run safely, or provide an opportunity each day to play outside.