My son, Henry, took his first real steps on Easter Sunday 2017. He saw his cousin, who was two months older and toddling all over, and thought to his little baby self, “Hey, if he can do it, so can I!” From then on, it was nonstop.
One of my biggest worries came from not knowing how mobile Henry would be. Would I be able to keep up with him in my wheelchair? Would he still progress at normal stages because he didn’t see me walking? My greatest fear of all was that he would take off into traffic and I wouldn’t be able to stop him.
One day, my son and I were in the front yard of our house when my husband was taking groceries inside. At that exact moment, Henry took two steps down the driveway. My imagination instantly flashed forward to a speeding car driving out of control and hitting my baby. Even though we live on a quiet street in a gated subdivision where neighbors generally drive slowly, at that moment I was certain he was going to be hit.
I shrieked my husband’s name and he came running out of the house, no doubt expecting to find dismembered limbs or some major catastrophe. My son stopped and looked at his mama to see why she was yelling like a crazy person. And that was when it hit me: I am his mom and, for the most part, he listens to me because I’ve taught him to. That’s when I realized I was going to be OK with the whole toddler stage.
So here are some tips and tricks I picked up from that moment forward that helped with this critical phase of his life.
The Wheelchair Walker
We bought our son several walkers to help him learn to walk, but none of them rivaled my wheelchair, a TiLite ZRA that has a large bar across the back. Henry would grab onto the bar, pull himself up and push me around the house. We would spend a couple of hours a day walking laps around the house, no exaggeration.
I loved him using me as a human walker for two reasons. First, it was a really special bonding time for us. I had been concerned I would be left out of the hands-on experience of his learning to walk, but now I was an integral part of it. Second, I could control how fast he went and help him navigate things like turns and walls. When he used his other walkers, he would often crash.
While I encourage him to learn things the hard way, I also encourage safety. My being able to control speed and obstacles meant he was able to focus on the walking basics. As he got more accustomed to walking, I allowed him to borrow my chair to push around the house when I wasn’t in it. Yes, our walls are now worse for wear and will require some touch-up paint, but he is really good at maneuvering and will have lots of practice if he ever gets into demolition derby driving.
For the record, or in case your kid doesn’t like pushing your chair, of the walkers we bought, my son’s favorite was the Little Tikes Light ’n Go 3-in-1 Activity Walker. He could sit and play with all the fun cranks, twists, buttons and lights. He could stand and play with the activities. Or, he could just hold the handle and walk with it.
Controlling a Toddler in Public
Going into public with a toddler is when things start to get especially tricky. When my son was a baby, I used a Moby Wrap to secure him to me. I liked that I could make him as secure as I wanted, and we weren’t confined to a carrier that came in a predetermined size. As soon as Henry was big enough to sit up on his own firmly, I used the Moby Wrap to tie him to my lap.
From about age 1 on, if we were out in public, I would sit my son on my left leg and wrap the Moby Wrap around us about two or three times, with a knot behind my back. At home, he was very good at balancing on my lap, and I could alternate wheeling with one hand while supporting him with the other. But in public, I didn’t want to risk hitting an unexpected bump, hole, rock or anything that could interfere with my casters and possibly send him flying. He was always very secure, and I was able to smell his baby shampoo. Win-win.
From 20 months to 2 years old, my son stopped wanting to sit on my lap in public. At our local mall, after I parked in the structure, I would get him out of the car and attach a leash to his left hand. The other end attached to my right arm. We explored a harness leash, but he did not care for that one. The hand leash he tolerated. I liked the mall in the mornings because it gave us a quiet place to explore where he was also confined. Running became a new hobby of his, and he always wanted to be on the go. At the mall he would just do laps.
While he was learning to stay near me, we used the leash not only at the mall, but also at any parking lot when Henry and I were on our own. We did get some odd looks from people, but my son’s safety is more important to me than opinions of strangers.
We only used the leash for a few months and maybe only a dozen times. He caught on quickly that he needs to stay close to me at all times when we are in parking lots or crossing streets. In fact, people often comment on how he stays right next to me while we are walking. I am still vigilant and remind him while we are near moving vehicles that he needs to stay by my side.
Using Games to Control Running and Wandering
When we are in a store and my son gets antsy and wants to take off, I distract him with “find something blue,” or “find the number nine.” He loves letters, numbers and colors, and when he is interested in something, he forgets about wanting to run all over. I can keep up with him when he runs off, but in places like grocery stores, it’s hard to pull him out of the way of a cart and control my chair at the same time. I’ve nearly spun out numerous times, trying to stop him with one hand and my chair with the other. People aren’t usually expecting a runaway toddler to dart out in front of their shopping cart, so it’s up to me to try to keep him from being smooshed.
If Henry stays close to me, then I reward him with letting him lead where we go (within reason) for a few minutes. Our grocery store has a big red metal truck that moves around the store for various displays. I bargain with my son and tell him that if he stays close to me for a few aisles, then we can go see the truck. This usually works. Recently, we stayed in a hotel, so I made a deal that if he stayed with me while we checked in and went to the room to leave our stuff, we could explore and he could lead the way. We went up and down the hallways and explored every floor in the hotel. Again, I love confined spaces where he can have some freedom and where I can easily keep up with him.
When it comes time to load up and leave, it’s time for another game. Where we live, the temperature reaches well over 100 for half the year, so in a hot parking lot I load the car first, then load him. To keep him close while I’m busy, I allow him to stand on his own while I put things away, as long as he stays in the blue striped section next to the accessible spot. He isn’t allowed to cross the blue. I sometimes give him something light to hold so he feels like he has a job. When it’s just the two of us, I normally just have to put a bag in the trunk when we shop or his backpack in the car after school. Making it a game helps. If he stays in the blue, he is safe. If he crosses, he is out and loses a treat.
Most of All, Have Fun
I have found that if you get overly stressed out, your kid will pick up on it, so why not have fun when you can? My son loves racing me in my wheelchair (I usually let him win). When we are walking on the sidewalk into his school, we race. I only do this when he’s running in the direction I want him to go and when there’s no threat of him getting run over (by carts or cars). He likes it when I do wheelies and calls them my “jumps.” If we have to wait somewhere that I feel isn’t safe, and I want to keep him distracted so he doesn’t dart into danger, we do jumps and see how high we can jump or how many times we can jump.
I thought the early baby stage would be the most worrisome as a parent in a wheelchair, but I’ve come to realize that the mobility stage is equally nerve-wracking. However, I think that’s just the way parenting is in general, a common thread among all parents, no matter your physical abilities. The important thing to remember is that your child will listen to you if you are firm enough and make things fun when possible. So, enjoy the crazy ride.