As your child becomes mobile and starts to propel her way around the house by creeping, crawling or gliding, you may have set up a baby gate or other barricade to keep her away from the stairs.
So when is the right time to introduce your child to stair climbing -- with your supervision and protection, of course?
When your child begins pulling into standing, they are demonstrating interest in standing, using the same pattern they would need to crawl up the stairs. This can be a good time to introduce both crawling up stairs and later walking up stairs with hand-hold support.
Chances are your child’s first encounter with stairs will involve crawling up them and scooting down them before she’s ready to climb stairs from a standing position. We want to be on the step below the child when they are climbing up or down the stairs to protect them from tumbling down during play. Let them start moving up the steps by reaching to a higher step and help bring their legs up to the next step in response to that reaching. When coming down the stairs, we want feet to go first, either scooting on a child's bottom or sliding down on the child's stomach.
Next comes navigating stairs from an upright position. Typically, about 3-6 months after they start walking can be a good time to practice step ups or step downs with two-hand hold support. Stair negotiation requires an excellent combination of standing balance and the strength needed to go up and down steps. Stepping up requires balancing on one leg to place one foot on the next step and leg strengthening to get onto that step. Stepping down requires sufficient strength in the leg still on the step, to control the other foot stepping down, since the bottom leg has to maintain balance to get both feet onto one step. Stepping down can be harder to do, as the muscles that help a child do this are starting in a lengthened position, making it a more challenging motion to control.
How can you help them best when practicing stairs?
It can be helpful to stand in front of your child, either a couple steps up when walking up or a couple steps below when walking down. When going up, your hands above them can help with the pushing through the top leg to step up. When going down, you being in front of them helps to shift weight forward and help with initiating steps down. It also can feel more safe to be stepping closer to a parent when working on this difficult skill. When this gets easier, you can transition to only one-hand support or support from a railing.
As with swinging and climbing, the playground can be an ideal place to practice stair stepping disguised in transitional play. Having children walk up and down stairs to get on and off the playground will work their muscles and have them practice standing on one leg at a time.