Smart Shopping: Baby Walkers

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Walkers can keep a child away from certain dangers, but they delay a baby's desire to walk unassisted.
A traditional walker, consisting of a molded plastic or metal frame with a suspended center seat and wheels attached to the base, gives a baby a quick way to get around before he can walk. Most are designed for a child of 4 to 16 months--or whenever a child begins to walk, usually around a year old. Don't use a walker once your baby can walk unassisted.
Walkers can keep a child away from certain dangers or let him follow you around the house--but they also raise concerns about safety and a child's normal development. Despite the name, a walker doesn't help a baby acquire walking skills. Walkers can strengthen lower leg muscles, but not the upper leg and hip muscles your baby will use most. Studies have shown that walkers may even delay a baby's desire to walk unassisted because he can scoot around too easily. More important, some walkers pose a significant risk of injury. Old-style walkers can fall down stairs or steps. They can turn over when their wheels get snagged, or roll up against hot stoves and heaters. Outdoors, they can fall off decks and patios, over curbs, and into swimming pools. Many accidents involving walkers occur despite the presence of safety gates--either because the gates were closed incorrectly or they didn't hold up against the impact of the walker.
A second-generation voluntary safety standard was issued for walkers in 1997 to protect against stairway falls. According to this standard, walkers must have a bottom friction strip made of rubberized material to stop the walker if its wheels drop away at the edge of a step. Walker-related incidents have declined since the 1997 standard was introduced. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that in 1992, walkers were involved in 25,700 injuries to children younger than 15 months who were treated in hospital emergency rooms. In 2003 (the latest government data), the number dropped to 3,200 such injuries, an 88 percent reduction.
Despite these promising statistics, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents not to use traditional baby walkers, and even recommended the U.S. government ban wheeled walkers. Since April 2004, the Canadian government has prohibited new and used baby walkers from being advertised, sold, or imported. However, baby walkers that don't conform to the nationally recognized stair-fall safety standard continue to be manufactured in the U.S. and abroad. The CPSC has put manufacturers, importers, and retailers of baby walkers on notice, urging them to continually review their product line to make sure all walkers they sell comply with the standard. Any walker they sell that doesn't meet this voluntary safety standard is considered defective and will be recalled from the marketplace. We agree that walkers can pose a safety hazard--even those that meet the safety standard--and believe there are plenty of safer alternatives, including stationary activity centers.
SHOPPING SECRETS
Safety first. Select a model with a wheelbase that's longer and wider than the frame of the walker to ensure stability.
Practice collapsing display models in the store. Make sure the folding mechanism works well. In our tests, some models, such as the Safety 1st Grip 'N' Go ($40), pinched a finger when it was unfolded. (See our baby walker Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.orgsubscribers.)
Don't buy a walk-behind walker. Some walkers, such as the Kolcraft Tiny Steps 2-in-1 Activity Walker #14570 ($60), can be converted to a walk-behind walker; once they're able, babies have the option of scooting around on foot by pushing the walker from behind. We consider walk-behind units dangerous because a baby could push the walker down stairs. Avoid these models or simply don't convert them into walk-behind mode.
Take your baby with you. When you're shopping, make sure his feet can touch the ground on the seat's lowest setting.
Examine attachments. Look for small toys or parts that can break off or screws that can loosen. Toys and parts should be firmly attached.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE
The major brands of traditional, wheeled baby walkers are, in alphabetical order, Baby Trend, Delta Enterprise, Dream on Me, Kolcraft, and Safety 1st
Also called "mobile entertainers" or "mobile activity centers," walkers are usually rectangular, but come in different shapes, such as a small car. Many have optional toy bars and toys, with or without sound and lights, and sometimes a mock steering wheel. Some also have a large snack tray with cup holder. Prices range from $30 to $80.
IMPORTANT FEATURES
Foldability. Some models fold flat for easy storage, a convenience if you live in a small space or plan to travel to Grandma's with your child's walker in tow.
Friction strips. They touch the floor when the wheels fall away on stairs or uneven pavement, making it difficult for a baby to push the walker farther. Most walkers that meet the voluntary safety standard have friction strips, but that's not a fail-safe design.
Parking stand. This allows the wheels to be lifted off the floor to limit a baby's scooting. Or look for a walker with wheels that lock.
Seat. Some seat covers can be removed and are machine washable. Seat height can be raised or lowered, using a locking mechanism located under the front tray, slots in the base of the walker, or adjusters on the seat.
Toys. Most walkers have rimmed trays, often with toys attached, some of which are equipped with lights and/or electronic sound effects. Infants under 4 months or so may not pay attention to toys at first.
RECOMMENDATIONS
Even with friction strips, a conventional walker isn't 100 percent safe. Consider a stationary activity centers instead. One walker we can recommend is the top-rated Bright Starts Around We Go because it is attached to an anchored activity station, limiting its area of use. (See our baby walker Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.orgsubscribers.)
We rated the The Kolcraft Tiny Steps 2-in-1 model #14565 and found it not acceptable because it failed the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) test for prevention of falls down stairs, and have urged the manufacturer and the CPSC to recall it. This Kolcraft model, discontinued but still available in stores, is certified by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) to meet the ASTM safety standard. A JPMA certification, however, is not an indicator of a safer infant walker.
Walkers do poorly on carpet, so reconsider if your house doesn't have hardwood, tile, or linoleum flooring. Babies on wheels can be surprisingly swift. When your baby is in walker mode, keep a close eye on your now-mobile baby.
Other precautions: Use a walker only in a room that doesn't have access to stairs leading down, and block access to stairs and the outside while the walker is in use. Clear objects off tables, counter, and stove-tops that a baby in a walker might be able to reach. Make sure any springs and hinges on the walker have protective coverings. Finally, don't carry a walker with your baby in it. It's too easy for you to trip.
2009-03-26 15:05:57
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