When a child learns to walk, instinctively, he or she will begin walking with their feet flat on the ground. But because this is a skill that takes much practice, it’s not uncommon for them to transition on and off their tip toes as their walking abilities develop.
Some children begin walking on their toes for stability, others walk on their toes for sensory reasons – these children sometimes have difficulty tolerating pressure through their heels or they prefer the sensations (or proprioceptive input) they received from their joints locking out. Children may also walk on their toes due to range of motion restrictions in their calf muscles (gastrocs).
As your child’s coordination and muscles develop, they will begin walking with a heel-toe pattern; on average around 18 months of age. However, should those heels remain ascended beyond age 2-3 as your child’s only means of getting around, this may be an early sign of a neurological condition (Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Tethered cord, etc.). Conversely research reports 7-24 percent of children who walk on their tip-toes are idiopathic toe walkers, meaning they do not have a correlated disgnosis such as Cerebral Palsy.
When to see a specialist
Research supports the idea that heel strike in children begins around 22 weeks following initial onset of walking independently. For the majority of children, this occurs around 18 months of age. Toe walking is not considered a normal part of this early independent gait. As we mentioned, if by age 2, your child hasn’t outgrown toe walking, this may be an indication of neurological immaturity or muscle weakness.
To that, ATI Physical Therapy experts suggest consulting with your pediatrician, because if left untreated, toe-walking can put your child at further risk for contractures, foot deformities and balance deficits. And in severe cases, your child may require surgical interventions if deformities or contractures are advanced. Fortunately, physical therapy interventions are an effective way to help your child overcome this.
Long-term effects of toe walking, if left untreated
As you can imagine, toe-walking places a great load on the muscles and tendons. Many children who consistently walk on their tip-toes since establishing independent ambulation, may develop foot deformities as early as the age of four. These children may demonstrate ankle range of motion restrictions, impaired balance and poor postural alignment.
Physical therapy for toe walking
Therapeutic treatment such as physical therapy can assist your child in achieving a heel-toe gait pattern as well as correcting any range of motion restrictions, muscle imbalances and postural deformities. After identifying the child’s origin for toe-walking, a plan of care is established to address the child’s deficits. Treatment methods typically include stretching, strengthening of lower extremities and core, balance retraining, sensory integration techniques, serial casting, orthotic training and a home exercise program.
After completing physical therapy, what’s next?
Once your child has successfully completed their PT treatment, you will receive a home exercise program to further continue their treatment plan at home.
For children with an established heel-to-toe pattern, who no longer demonstrate weakness or range of motion restrictions, their home program is minimal. For children with neurological conditions as an underlying source of their toe-walking, they may require intermittent services over their lifetime to maintain gains, usually around growth spurts.
If you are concerned about your child’s toe-walking tendencies, we first suggest connecting with your pediatrician to determine the next course of action. Should physical therapy be required, please don’t hesitate to contact your your nearest ATI physical therapy clinic to see what pediatric therapy options are available for your child.