Does your child walk on their toes or the balls of their feet? First of all, toe walking is not necessarily a sign of anything bigger going on. A lot of kiddos who are just starting to walk spend a good portion of their time on their toes. This should decrease the more experience they get with walking.
So, how long is too long for toe walking?
While every kiddo develops differently, by the age of three, most kids should not be toe walking. Also, you want to look for any additional signs, such as unsteady feet or ankles. This would show up as frequent falls, “wobbly” appearing feet while standing, or feet that look like they roll toward the middle with little to no arch visible. Signs such as these may point to some structural instability in the feet or ankles.
These kiddos often do well with extra supportive shoes or orthotics for their feet. Also, if they are frequently clumsy, fall often, have poor overall awareness of their bodies or have high or low muscle tone at rest, there may be a deeper issue at play.
All of these could be signs of gross motor delay or general difficulty with balance and may warrant the need for further evaluation to determine an underlying physical or developmental cause.
The dangers of toe walking
So, all that being said, what is the big deal with toe walking? When toe walking becomes a habit, the body adapts to suit that. What that means is the Achilles tendon on the back of the lower leg can shorten. Shortened tendons lead to the inability to properly use the joints they affect, in this case the ankle.
A person with short Achilles tendons cannot properly elevate their toes in running, clearing steps or climbing, which further delays their gross motor development and makes them more prone to tripping on their own feet.
Putting a stop to habitual toe walking
What if your child is a habitual toe walker? A good place to start is a proper screening by your child’s physician to rule out any underlying medical or orthopedic conditions.
Once all has been cleared, a good next step is physical therapy. What this looks like for a child who toe walks is a program individually designed for your child’s needs. This typically includes a combination of:
- Balance activities
- Strengthening exercises
When utilized together, these work to lower them back down to their heels to allow proper functional development in the areas of walking, strength, balance and coordination. The earlier that toe walking is addressed, the higher the likelihood of preventing the cascade of negative long-term effects.
Pediatric therapists have ample experience in dealing with toe walking and are more than capable of designing a program to help a child and their family decrease both toe walking and the negative consequences associated with it. A good place to start would be with your child’s physician.
Mention your concerns about your child’s habitual toe walking to your family doctor. If they feel physical therapy is a good idea, they will advise you on the next steps—literal and physical—for your child.