Dangers of Stroller Overuse
It used to be that pushing 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. Who imagines a trip to the zoo or a busy airport with their little one without taking a stroller along?
But once a child is able to walk proficiently, typically between the ages of 2 and 3, parents should begin to question whether or not to bring the stroller. Strollers serve a purpose in today's fast-paced world, but after a child is 3, overusing a stroller can interfere with physical development.
What Experts Say
The American Academy of Pediatrics states stroller use is appropriate for children during the infant/toddler stages and should be reduced starting when a child turns 3 years old. Pediatricians also caution against the overuse of strollers. Dr. Naomi Neufeld, medical director of KidShape Foundation, a non-profit weight-management program for children, says keeping kids in strollers when they are perfectly able to walk is part of a larger socio-cultural problem, because access to information about how to raise healthy children is limited. Another problem is that parents are overly busy and don't 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," says Neufeld. Instead, 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, they are encouraging a sedentary lifestyle and promoting their child's risk for obesity."
Barbara Swenson, a parent educator, is very familiar with the growing problem of stroller overuse. She is concerned children increasingly are becoming "passive observers" rather than participating in life. She encourages parents to walk with their children, 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," says Swenson. "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 introduced later, they were recommended for twins or two children under 3. But today, most manufacturers market strollers that carry children beyond age 4, with increasing weight limits up to as much as 50 pounds (or 150 for some double strollers).
Sales of baby accessories in the United States, including strollers, are forecasted to reach $10 billion by 2010. According to market research, this is in large part due to the increased popularity of high-end products. Small start-up companies that sell luxury baby items say they are experiencing an annual sales growth in the triple digits.
Gaining popularity are double strollers and strollers with increased weight limits. One such company boasts that their stroller, "includes a car seat adapter that allows all single-seat strollers to be used from infancy to age 4 or 5." And visit any national department store chain, and you'll find a well-known manufacturer that advertises one of their top-selling strollers is "Built SUV-tough - Extended weight limit up to 50 pounds."
Wean Off the Stroller
Ed and Marcy Harrington, parents of two girls, ages 2 and 5, say 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. Teaching her to hold my hand or hold the stroller handle during our early walks took a lot of work," says Marcy. Even though it would have been easier to keep their oldest daughter in a stroller past the age of 3, Ed and Marcy wanted to instill the importance of exercise.
Help Kids Get Moving
Research shows that weight control is more successful when parents limit sedentary activities, and instead provide healthy alternatives. Like most parents, Ed and Marcy have had to develop strategies to keep their children on the move. Motivation techniques to consider while walking with your child include:
• Pack plenty of snacks and water for the walk
• Dress kids in comfortable clothes and shoes
• Make sure you and your child are prepared for the weather
• Allow extra time for any unexpected delays
• Determine the purpose of the trip before you go (expect more stops when you are starting out)
• Play imaginary games to encourage a longer walk
• Count steps while walking
• Notice and point out things on the path, such as colors, flowers, signs, people and animals
• Tell stories, such as fairy tales
• Expect your child will complain and ask to be picked up. (This may be the hardest part, but it's important to stand firm - talk to your child, using praise and encouraging feedback).