For babies, walking opens a whole new world

Walking and talking are linked as babies develop, anecdote and data show.


Yesterday, Baby V and I were hanging out in the living room talking about some of her friends. I was running down the list, saying the names of all of her fun pals at day care, her jovial librarian and her enchanting doctor.  When I got to the stuffed animals and said “Teddy,” she jerked her head up and looked toward her room, the big brown bear’s habitat.

I held her hands as she stood and motored toward her room. As we rounded the corner and discovered Teddy, she shrieked with joy and nearly wriggled out of my grasp. I think she might even have her own version of the word: a high-pitched “duh” followed by a lower “dee.” Further experiments to follow.

With these new skills — walking (with two-handed help) and talking (sort of) — Baby V’s world is expanding. Fast.

Compared with her previous nine months alive, these last few weeks have been a whole new kind of crazy. She’s able to not only observe her world, but to change it too. Instead of watching me hide my face with a blanket, she can play peek-a-boo herself, precisely timing the big reveal for maximum hilarity. She’s clearly the boss of her own self.  

A big contributor to this newfound autonomy is her ability to move around. Baby V can zoom around a room on her hands and knees and pull herself up on furniture. She thinks she can walk, and even run, but still needs two big hands to help balance. All of this dizzying motion catapults a baby into a new world, changing the context in which a baby grows and learns, a new study in Developmental Psychology suggests.

Independent of age, babies who walk earlier have a bigger vocabulary, the study found. Researchers followed 44 babies from about 10 months of age to 13 1/2 months — prime time for walking and talking to emerge. As walking skills increased, so did the number of words a baby could understand and say. Crawlers understood about 75 words. Babies who had been walking for 8 weeks knew more than 100, the team found. Likewise, babies who crawled could produce just over 10 words, while experienced walkers could say about 30.

The results, like most studies of babies, are observations, and can’t explain whether learning to walk actually causes vocabulary gains. But the idea is plausible for several good reasons, the authors write, and my own experience agrees.   

Compared with a crawling Baby V, a walking Baby V moves faster, has a better view and has two hands free (we’re still working on that one). A nimble, roaming Baby V will command more of my verbal attention. She will be able to point at friendly doggies, inviting people to describe the animals. She will be able to go get her favorite book and carry it over to her dad. Her motion will elicit all sorts of interesting new words from adults, like “Get down from that amplifier!”

For Baby V, walking will be what some scientists call a “setting event,” one that propels a baby into a new realm and influences a baby’s growth in lots of different ways. Baby V hasn’t arrived into the walking world quite yet, but she’s beating a path there fast.

Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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