Baby walkers have never been safe. Why are companies still selling them?

Pediatricians just published data on related injuries—but this isn't new information.

a baby in a saucer
Kids will learn how to walk without a walker—and the saucers just put them at risk.DepositPhotos

A zooming tyke in a saucer-shaped walker is, let’s be honest, adorable. But plenty of people aren’t aware of just how dangerous these baby walkers can be.

Pediatricians just published a study in the journal Pediatrics showing that 230,676 children under the age of 15 months went to the emergency room from 1990 to 2014 with injuries related to their walkers. More than 90 percent of those were head injuries. Three-quarters were from falling down the stairs, a mishap which manufacturers were supposed to prevent with updates to their designs.

The problem of baby walker injuries was so bad that the Consumer Products Safety Commission introduced new regulations to address the 21,000 injuries that occurred in 1990 alone. Stationary baby centers—the kind featuring baubles and toys for kids to entertain themselves with—came along in 1994, and in 1997 the CPSC instituted a policy to require baby walkers to have wider frames and braking mechanisms. Both regulations were intended to prevents falls down the stairs. There was an 88 percent reduction in injuries after the '94 changes through 2008, and CPSC made a further update in 2010 to ensure manufacturers were doing proper safety testing.

But since 2002, the number of injuries has held roughly steady at just over 2,000 per year. There are a couple reasons for this that the recent study cites.

Faulty baby walkers are still out there

Even if manufacturers aren’t intentionally trying to skirt the rules, new walkers are still going to fail sometimes. The study authors note that the most common method of installing a braking mechanism is to add friction strips, which are supposed to grip the floor if more than one wheel goes off an edge (as it would if the baby were heading down the stairs). But friction strips can become less effective as they wear down and accumulate dirt over time, plus the type of floor can affect how well the strips grip in the first place. Plus, particularly strong kids can push off the ground and overcome the brakes anyway.

Safety regulations are also supposed to prevent tip-overs, since such spills result in the child hitting their unprotected head, but 14.77 percent of the injuries in this study were from falls out of the walker—including tipovers.

There are also plenty of recalls. From 2001 to 2010, manufacturers recalled 10 walkers because they failed to meet the staircase-fall prevention criteria. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these probably never got replaced. One estimate states that only 10 percent of recalled children's products actually get returned or replaced. That may partly be due to the fact that many families only have need for these walkers for a short time, so they may have already thrown them out by the time the recall goes into effect. But plenty of families pass around baby items, so many of these old, defective walkers could still be out there.

Parents either don't know the risks, or take them anyway

Despite the push in the 1990s to educate the public about the potential dangers of baby walkers, plenty of parents continue to use them. Some may simply have no idea (hopefully they do now!), but in one study roughly 60 percent of parents who brought their child to the ER with a walker-related injury said they knew about the risks in advance. One-third said they had continued to use the walker after their baby got hurt.

The study didn't address exactly why these parents continued to put their children at risk—maybe they figured it was a one-off incident, maybe they simply didn't have another option to keep their kids occupied—but it's for reasons like this that Canada banned all baby walkers in 2004. The government deemed them too dangerous to continue using, especially considering that they offer no benefit.

Walkers might actually delay the onset of walking

The original movement to put babies in little mobile saucers cited the fact that they could help children learn how to move around faster. Kids who learned to propel themselves inside the walker might also learn to do so out of the walker. But that’s not what research suggests.

If anything, some studies show that walkers may delay the time at which babies learn to crawl and walk. One 1997 study found that babies who used walkers were one to two months delayed in their motor skills, though a 2017 meta analysis found insufficient evidence one way or the other. Overall motor development seems to be unimpacted even if there is a transient delay. But the idea that walkers are beneficial is definitely a myth.

If you need somewhere to put your kid, try a stationary entertainment center

Babies are a lot of work—we get that. They need endless attention and they’re prone to falling over. Walkers seem like a great way to keep them occupied and allow them to move around, but they’re not the best option. If you want a way to keep your baby out of harm’s way, a stationary rig is much safer. The American Academy of Pediatrics not only doesn’t recommend mobile walkers, their official position is to ban them altogether and to organize community programs “to encourage proper disposal of walkers so that they can be destroyed and the materials recycled.” Instead, they say that stationary activity centers are a safer alternative that parents should be made aware of.

If you currently have a baby walker, please get rid of it. You can recycle plastic toys and gear in many municipalities, just make sure to break it down first so that it's not usable (you don't want someone grabbing it off the street, mistaking it for a giveaway!). Then go get your baby a stationary rig—and rest easy.