Although the number of children in the United States who are injured by baby walkers has dropped dramatically in recent years, it is still too high, according to the authors of a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
The study found that baby walkers — those wheeled contraptions that enable babies to scoot around on their legs before they can actually walk — send an average of five children to U.S. hospital emergency departments each day with injuries, mostly from falling down stairs and injuring their head or neck.
That is a troubling statistic. “Infant walker-related injuries can be severe and can include skull fracture, brain injury, burns, poisoning, and drowning,” the authors of the study write.
Deaths are rare, but they do occur. In 2009, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) reported that baby walkers had been implicated in the deaths of eight children during the previous five years.
A call for a ban
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been warning for decades about the hazards of baby walkers. It called for a ban on the manufacture and sale of the devices more than two decades ago, but they have remained legal in the U.S.
In the late 1990s, U.S. manufacturers implemented voluntary safety features — primarily making walkers broader than a standard 36-inch-wide doorway and adding a braking feature that’s supposed to keep the devices from tumbling down stairs. In 2010, the CPSC imposed a few additional — and this time, mandatory — safety measures, including ones that made it easier to keep non-complying baby walkers from being imported into the U.S.
The current study, which was conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, assessed the effect of those mandatory federal safety standards on walker-related injuries.
For the study, the researchers examined the CPSC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System data on hospital emergency department visits for children under the age of 15 months. That analysis revealed that 230,676 children were taken to hospitals with baby-walker-related injuries during the years 1990 to 2014.
Almost three-fourths (74 percent) of the injuries resulted from falling down stairs, while another 14 percent occurred when the walkers flipped over and the child fell out. In both cases, most of the injuries involved the neck or head, including fractures and concussions. A much smaller proportion of the injuries (less than 3 percent) happened when the child came in contact with something he or she wouldn’t normally have reached — mostly hot objects that caused burns.
Almost 5 percent of the children sustained injuries so severe they had to be admitted to the hospital.
Ninety-eight percent of all the injuries occurred in the child’s home.
As background information in the study points out, a child can move at speeds of more than three feet per second while in a walker — far too fast in many instances for a parent to stop the child from careening down a staircase or from pulling a heavy object off a table and sending it crashing down on the child’s head or body.
A dramatic decline
The study also uncovered a remarkably positive finding, however. The annual number of baby-walker-related injuries that required emergency medical care plummeted tenfold during the period of the study, from 20,650 in 1990 to 2,001 in 2014.
Most of that decline occurred during the 1990s. The reduction is due in part, say the study’s authors, to the publicity surrounding the efforts of pediatricians and other child-safety advocates to ban baby walkers, as well as the growing use of stationary “activity centers” instead of baby walkers.
The study also found that injuries were 23 percent lower in the four years after the 2010 federal safety standards were implemented than in the four years before.
“The good news is that the number of infant walker-related injuries has continued to decrease substantially during the past 25 years,” said Dr. Gary Smith, the study’s senior author, in a released statement. “However, it is important for families to understand that these products are still causing serious injuries to young children and should not be used.”
Smith and his co-authors say their research supports the AAP’s call for a ban of the manufacture and sale of all baby walkers in the U.S.
In addition to recommending against the use of the devices, the AAP urges parents to dismantle any baby walker in their households before tossing it into the trash. That will ensure the walker does not end up being used by other families.
The AAP also points out that, contrary to widespread belief, baby walkers do not help children learn to walk at an earlier age. In fact, research has shown the opposite. The devices may actually slow a child’s motor development.
FMI: You can read the study on Pediatrics’ website.