It used to be that toting a child in a stroller past the age of 3 was the exception to the rule, but it’s rapidly becoming the norm. For parents of infants and toddlers, strollers are one of those indispensable items on their equipment “must have” list. Some can’t imagine a family trip to the zoo or airport without taking a stroller along. But experts say once a child is able to walk proficiently, typically between the ages of 2 and 3, overusing a stroller can interfere with physical development.
What experts say
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that stroller use is appropriate for children during the infant/toddler stages, and should be eliminated by the time a child is 3 years old. Pediatricians also caution against the overuse of strollers. Dr. Naomi Neufeld, medical director of KidShape Foundation, a nonprofit weight-management program for children, says that busy parents don’t always make the time to take their children on walks. “When they go out to run errands, letting their child out of the stroller to walk often takes too much extra time and effort,” she says. Neufeld adds that parents need to embrace the idea that “childhood is about mastering one’s environment, so if parents don’t allow their children to get out and explore away from their stroller, they are encouraging a sedentary lifestyle and promoting their child’s risk for obesity.”
In King and Pierce counties, the child obesity rate has doubled in the past two decades. Currently 15 percent of children are clinically obese. “Research shows that for young children, the earlier they start being active, the more likely they’ll develop an activity pattern that will continue as they get older,” says Dr. Mollie Greves, general pediatrics NRSA fellow at the University of Washington.
Barbara Swenson, a Mercer Island-based parent educator, is concerned that children are increasingly becoming “passive observers” rather than participating in life. She encourages parents to walk with their children without strollers, allowing them to stop and explore nature along the way. “Many parents walk with their children to get from point A to point B, and don’t allow their child to veer off the path or stop to explore something that catches their interest,” Swenson says. “Children need to get out of the stroller so they can walk and stop to smell the flowers.”
The modern stroller invented 40 years ago was intended for children from birth to 3. When double strollers were later introduced, they were recommended for twins or two children younger than 3. But today, most manufacturers market strollers that carry children beyond age 4, with increasing weight limits as much as 50 pounds or 150 for some double strollers. One such company boasts that its stroller “includes a car seat adapter that allows all single-seat strollers to be used from infancy to age 4 or 5.” One ad for a top-selling stroller: “Built SUV tough — Extended weight limit up to 50 pounds.” This is disconcerting, given that the average 50-pound child is 6 to 7 years old.
Seattle parents Ed and Marcy Harrington say that safety was one reason they used a stroller, especially when their oldest was learning to walk and entered the “wandering” stage. “But we also felt it was worthwhile to teach her how to stay close to us,” says Marcy. “Teaching her to hold my hand or hold the stroller handle during our early walks took a lot of work.” Even though it would have been easier to keep her in a stroller past the age of 3, Ed and Marcy wanted to instill the importance of exercise. Ed would regularly go on trail walks in Carkeek Park with his oldest in a backpack. He started taking her out of the backpack for short periods. “By the time she was 3, we didn’t need the backpack any longer. Walking with her on the trail helped train her how to stay close, so she would be safe when walking with us on city sidewalks.”
Lori Goff is a parent coach, preschool teacher, and mother of a 4-year-old daughter. She can be reached at pwmweb.org.
Originally published in the July, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.