Most parents didn't recognize a connection between pushing their young children in strollers and physical activity, a small Toronto study suggests.

Strollers are a must-have piece of gear for many parents, but experts have cautioned parents to reduce the amount of time children are strapped in to encourage walking. 

Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto wanted to hear from parents directly about how and why they turn to strollers.

To  that end, Dr. Catherine Birken, a pediatrician and scientist at SickKids, and her team interviewed 14 parents of children aged one to five in Toronto.

"Parents expressed that they consider strollers as devices that enable increased outdoor time for their children, and hadn't really considered the impact of strollers on physical activity," Birken said in an email.

In this week's online issue of the journal BioMed Central Public Health, the researchers said the most common reasons parents gave for using a stroller included:

  • Transportation.
  • Storage.
  • Supervision/confinement.
  • Parent's physical activity.

Some caregivers explained that when children sit in a stroller, they are missing an opportunity to be physically active. One parent said: "[c]ertainly there are mornings, like this morning when I took him to daycare, I said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice if I could just strap him in the stroller and get us there in like good time?' But then he doesn't get to … explore and walk and stuff like that as we go to daycare so I guess it's not as fun for him being in the stroller, so we try not to use it for that reason."

Strollers were sometimes used to take kids to a park to enjoy physical activity. But parents also said if the child walked to a swimming lesson, for instance, they would be more tired and less physically active on arrival.

Other parents said they opened a stroller in instances when the child would otherwise be carried.

"Strollers and the context of their use should be considered when developing interventions to promote physical activity in children. As guidelines continue to evolve, we want to ensure that they do not inadvertently reduce children's opportunities for outdoor time and play by recommending reduced stroller use," Birken said. "Likewise, we want to encourage walking and discourage the use of strollers to restrain children for prolonged periods."

The Canadian sedentary behaviour guidelines for newborns to age 4 recommend limiting prolonged sitting or restraint, with strollers listed as an example. They also recommend against using a stroller for sleep.

Most of the parents who participated were mothers. Fathers' perceptions of stroller use and physical activity may differ, the researchers said. The study included too few parents to comment on how perceptions might vary by a child's age.

This research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and SickKids Foundation.