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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceMastering the stairs safely — Good Parenting

Mastering the stairs safely — Good Parenting

baby stairsDear Dr. Debbie,

My baby has been crawling for a couple of months and yesterday he caught me by surprise, managing to get up two steps on the stairs before I dropped what I was doing to pick him up. We will now put up a baby gate. Should I be helping him to master climbing upstairs? And what about climbing down? During the workweek, he is in an infant classroom in a childcare center without any access to climbing other than some large foam blocks.

Catcher’s Position

Dear Catcher’s Position,

Climbing stairs is one of the milestones of early motor development. The coordination of this feat requires patterning both hands, both knees, and then both feet while maintaining balance of a head that is half its adult size and weight.

Stair climbing attempts generally start at about the same time a baby has begun pulling himself up to stand. At first this may be an arduous process as each move is carefully plotted, but gradually the movements become smoother until the actions are fluid. The average age, according to one study on stair climbing of over 700 typically developing babies, is just shy of 11 months. Mastery of stair climbing was defined by this research team as ascending one full flight without pause.

The researchers concluded that both opportunity and parental encouragement helped babies to reach the top, though only at slightly earlier ages than babies with less opportunity and guidance. Interestingly, all babies got the hang of going down backwards at about the same age, whether or not parents taught them and whether or not they had much opportunity to climb stairs.

Going down is a much more complex task since you can’t see where you’re going. So backward descent may depend on an ability with spatial thinking that occurs at about the same time in all babies. This is similar to the universal appearance of depth perception at about 6 months without which babies wouldn’t be ready for crawling around obstacles. So whether you help your son learn to climb up and down stairs or not, and despite not having the chance to practice during the week, he is bound to get it at the appropriate time in his development.

On the other hand, you can take advantage of his interest in stairs to share this exciting challenge when you are with him. When parents and babies spend “floor time” together (defined by Dr. Stanley Greenspan as time the parent is literally on the floor sharing attention with the baby about his activity), the parent-child bond is strengthened. You share his interest, sympathize with his struggles and applaud his successes. This is a beautiful role to play throughout his development.

Here are some tips for stair practice:

  • Friction – If your stairs are wood, keep baby’s feet bare or in treaded slippers.
  • Distance – Stay close enough to catch a fall while respecting his ownership of the task (keep your hand behind his rear end).
  • Forward Motivation – Use two parents for climbing practice time with one up at the top cheering him on. A toy or family pet is a good alternative.
  • Use Sensitivity – Be observant of your baby’s emotional state. Continue only as long as he is eager to do so. You may want to cut practice time short if he is showing signs of fatigue or discouragement.
  • Practice Makes Perfect – Young children learn by repetition so be prepared to enjoy many hours of miniature mountain climbing.
  • Record the Adventure – Have a spare grown-up handy for capturing the climb on video.
  • Celebrate the Victory – Lead a well-deserved applause when he has scaled the summit.
  • Modeling – Once he is competent at going up, provide an example of how going down backwards works. An older child is the perfect model if you can borrow one.
  • Gravity Happens – For safety’s sake, use that gate when it isn’t time for supervised stair climbing. Consider adding a small, thick area rug on the landing to soften a fall.
  • Around the Bend – Add railings at toddler reach — walking up and down the stairs will be coming soon.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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