Baby walker, early 18th century
This is one of the most controversial pieces of childcare equipment. Baby walkers and other similar items have been around for at least five hundred years, and there have been constant arguments about them. Are they a safety improvement? Do they really help a child learn to walk? Do they do more harm than good? Are they actually dangerous?
Some of the answers to these questions depend on where and how the walkers are used, and on what form they take. Young children would not normally have been left by themselves, but there were still many dangers to them in the house, especially when they were learning to walk. It was thought that any device of this type would help to protect them from falling into open fires, running into furniture or tumbling down stairs. They probably do give a child confidence as it learns to balance upright on its feet, but may encourage over-dependence or even fear.
They can be dangerous if not supervised - they can overbalance with the child still inside, trap their fingers in the movable parts, or cause them to bang their heads because they can move so quickly.
There are three basic types which have been used over the centuries. The one which is most often seen in museums and paintings consists of some sort of frame on wheels. The frames are often square or circular and surround the child (as in this example), but the oldest design of this type looks more like a small railing for the child to lean on. The other two types do not move about the floor. One is a long rectangular frame in which the child can walk up and down. The other is more like a tether for an animal: a rigid pole runs from the floor to the ceiling, and the child is attached to it in a harness or framework and can walk round and round.