Walking is an innate ability that develops over time, after a number of developmental processes have been completed and does not occur until the programmed maturation of various motor and sensory systems of baby’s brain is finalized.
You cannot teach a baby to walk, just like you cannot teach babies’ body cells to divide. What you can do is understand the nature of learning to walk and encourage and support baby’s own efforts, much like you support baby’s growth by providing nourishment.
The most basic neural mechanism of walking emerges very early and is controlled by a neural circuit known as central pattern generator (CPG), located in the spinal cord. Walking is so to speak pre-programmed in a baby’s brain and most young babies (2-3 months) exhibit a stepping reflex: when held up vertically with feet touching a flat surface, they will alternately lift each knee up high as if trying to take some steps. This ability later seems to disappear – mostly due to the fact that babies gain weight faster than they develop muscle strength and simply cannot lift up their legs.
True walking however, is a voluntary action, which requires the activation of the cerebral cortex (the largest portion of the brain), says pediatric neurologist Lise Eliot, PhD, author of What’s Going On In There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.
Lise Eliot uses the analogy of a machine such as a lawn mower – even though the motor can be powerful enough, it cannot do its job unless there is someone to turn it on and steer it in the right direction. True walking in babies awaits the maturation of the cortical motor areas controlling movement of the legs that basically ‘tell’ baby what to do.
True walking is also about practice. Once the basic neural pathways have been laid down, their final function depends on practice, on actual motor activity. For most babies, it takes many, many early steps for the ability to walk to be mastered. Lise Eliot explains that babies must first develop a great deal of strength, and especially stability, before they can manage the tricky maneuver of briefly balancing on just one leg, which is necessary for walking without help.
How do you know if your baby is ready to start walking? Let baby show you.
There are several things you can do to support your baby’s early steps.
For more information on the topic, we highly recommend Lise Eliot's book What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.