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Toddler Walking on Tiptoes? Understanding Toe Walking

toddler walking on tiptoes

Toe walking is what we formally call toddlers walking on tiptoes. Toe walking refers to taking steps on the toes or ball of the foot without the heel touching the ground. Like a tiptoe. 

Generally, it’s normal for babies to toe walk as they’re getting the hang of walking. Most kiddos grow out of it between the ages of 2 and 5. If you’re concerned about your kiddo’s toe walking, see your doctor. 

In fact, if you’re worried at all about your child’s development at all, call your doctor. This article is solely information and should not be applied to your child’s specific circumstances.

Why Does Toe Walking Happen?

While most of us walk around with ease, walking is a complex skill for babies who are first learning how to do it. This is one of the many reasons why we don’t pop out of the womb ready to sprint. 

Many babies need to experiment with their feet and muscles before they understand the most effective way to walk. Walking on tiptoes can be easier and less complex than the heel-to-toe stride that most of us use. Eventually, most babies will learn how to incorporate their heels into their walking pattern and stop toe walking. 

Again, many toddlers grow out of toe walking between the ages of 2 and 5. Let’s talk about what could be going on if they continue to toe walk beyond the toddler years.

Idiopathic Toe Walking

The word idiopathic means that the cause is unknown. This is the term used for kiddos that continue to toe walk beyond the toddler years when they should have developed a heel-to-toe gait. While “idiopathic” implies that we don’t know why the toe walking is happening, we have some solid theories about what it could mean and things to look out for because of it.

Developmental Delays and Toe Walking

A study of 13 toe walking children with an average age of almost 4 years found that 10 of them were either developmentally delayed or showed significant signs of it. All of these kiddos showed speech and language delays. Other delays, such as visual and fine and gross motor, popped up in a few kiddos as well. While not showing any causation, this study made it clear that persistent toe walking is a good red flag for testing other developmental issues.

There are other studies that show an associate between toe walking and language delays specifically, but make it clear that they aren’t statistically significant yet. It is something to look out for though.

Muscle Issues and Toe Walking

Persistent toe walking can be a red flag for cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. As with anything, all kiddos with these conditions have different characteristics. Generally though, it’s hard to use a typical heel-to-toe walking pattern when the muscles in the feet and legs aren’t cooperating.

For example, a lot of kiddos with cerebral palsy have high muscle tone. This high muscle tone can make muscles feel and look “stiff,” which makes it hard to extend the foot in the way that’s needed for a heel-to-toe gait. 

Autism and Toe Walking

A study of 954 kids found that toe walking was more common in the 324 kids who also had an autism diagnosis. 

There are quite a few studies noting the association between toe walking and autism, but few reasons why. Here’s where the word “idiopathic” comes back in.

There is something very important and interesting here though. With autism, we often focus more on the social and developmental components than the physical ones. When we see toe walking in kiddos with autism, this is a sign that we should be thinking about their physical challenges as well

Final Thoughts on Toe Walking

Most kiddos will go through a period of walking on tiptoes as they progress into a mature, adult stride. It can take some time to get to the heel-to-toe walking pattern that we’re most used to.

That said, there are some instances where toe walking isn’t normal and can be a sign of something else. If you came to this blog post with concerns about your kiddo in any way, contact your doctor to make sure there isn’t something else going on.

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Diana Fitts is a certified and licensed Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism. Check out my About page to read my story and get a free therapy journal page to record your kiddo’s sessions!

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