THE USE of baby walkers impairs infants' physical and intellectual development, new research shows.

THE USE of baby walkers impairs infants' physical and intellectual development, new research shows.

Those who are "exercised" in baby walkers are slower to sit upright and crawl. They also achieve lower results on early tests of mental and physical development when compared with other infants.

In Britain, it is estimated that 325,000 children - about 50 per cent of all those aged six to 18 months - use baby walkers. Walkers were introduced 25 years ago but have become more popular in the Nineties.

The devices give children who cannot crawl or walk the ability to move around the house while sitting down with their feet in contact with the floor. The walkers have wheels and the newer ones have larger trays than the traditional style, which allow more room for toys and play things.

But research now shows that the trays restrict infants' view of their moving legs, depriving them of visual feedback that would help them learn how their bodies move through space. Walkers also prevent infants from exploring and grabbing at things around them, which is critical to their early mental development.

Researchers from the State University of New York who have published their research in the latest issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics , studied the early mental and physical development of 109 infants. Around half had never used a walker, a third used the newer-style walkers and the remainder used older-style walkers that allowed infants to see their moving feet and grab at objects.

The infants were first tested at six, nine or 12 months of age, and again three months later, using a standard measure of physical and mental development. Parents provided information on when the infants achieved developmental milestones, such as crawling.

The researchers found the newer-style walkers were the worst for babies. On average the babies sat upright, crawled, and walked more than five weeks later than infants who had never used one, and three weeks later than those who had older models. "Newer-style walkers lead to greater delays in physical and mental development," said Dr Roger Burton, the co-author of the study.

The infants who used the newer-style walkers also had the lowest scores on physical and mental development, scoring 12 per cent worse on mental and motor skill tests than those who had never used one. Those with the old-style scored 5 per cent lower than those who have never used one.

Previous research has shown half the children who use baby walkers are injured every year, with 4,000 babies being taken to hospital after falling down stairs or into fires and heaters. Others suffer head injuries when the walkers topple over. The injuries range from concussion to broken limbs.

"When the danger factor is considered in conjunction with the developmental data presented by our study, the risks seem to outweigh any possible benefits of early walker exposure," Dr Burton said.

Dr Denise Kendrick from Nottingham University Medical School, who has conducted research into baby walkers, said they should be banned. "There is no evidence they help in teaching a child to walk or in children's development," she said. "Baby walkers are unsafe. They seem to fulfil the needs of parents by keeping their children occupied rather than offering any benefit for the child."