Toe Walking: Doctor Attributes Toe Walking to Signs of Poor Vestibular
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A little girl balances on her tip-toes. Given this simple sentence, most people will envision a little girl in a tutu, standing before a mirror and grasping a wooden bar. It’s common to find a ballerina on her toes. It’s also common to see very small children walking around on their tippy-toes, up until the age of three. But sometimes this is a tendency we see in kids over five and when that’s the case, it’s a sign that there may be something wrong.
Surprisingly, toe walking is not only a sign of a developmental delay in children; it is also a sign of a poor vestibular system, which is tied to a child’s balance and coordination. You may be asking yourself why balance and coordination is important and why it has anything to do with learning. If a child’s vestibular system isn’t working properly, we begin to see symptoms, like toe walking, poor behavior or learning challenges in the classroom. These signs mean that your child may have a disconnection in the brain preventing them from learning. We often see some of these symptoms in children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Asperger’s. However, there are several mainstream children that may struggle with toe walking and vestibular issues as well.
Dr. Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D., recently posted an article about toe walking that said, “Toe walking may be directly or indirectly related to a visual-vestibular problem.”
If toe walking is an issue in your home or with your students, it’s an instant trigger that tells us to look into larger learning issues with your child.
So now that we know toe walking could be a sign of a poor vestibular system, how do we know when it begins having an impact on our child’s learning? Here are some of the signs you may find in the classroom:
- Needs glasses at a young age, typically between the ages of 3-6 (appears to be a vision problem).
- Often says “huh?” or “what?” as if they didn’t hear the instructions the teacher is giving.
- Struggles to copy information from the chalkboard to their paper.
- Has trouble tracking words for reading and may have to blink to refocus their eyes on the page.
- Often feels unbalanced, is uncoordinated or runs into furniture or desks at school.
What Causes it?
Toe walking has a wide range of causes from the serious side all the way down to virtually harmless. Here are a few of the common causes for toe walking.
Dysfunctional Balance System
For some children who walk on their toes, their inner ear may be to blame. The vestibular system in the inner ear is responsible for feeding the brain information on position and movement. If the information this system is providing isn’t correct, the brain may not even be aware that the feet aren’t walking in the most effective way. These children can be helped with a range of movement therapies.
Sensory Processing Issues
A Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can also be to blame for walking on tip-toes. If your child is oversensitive to touch, they maybe avoiding placing their heels down to avoid uncomfortable textures or discomfort they experience at their weight against their heels. These kids will also show aversion to socks, shoes or bare feet. Tactile therapy is usually helpful for the kids in this group.
We’ll leave off with one of the least alarming causes. Habit. If you have a tot that spend a lot of time on their toes, they may continue to walk that way simply because they’re used to walking that way.
How can we help toe walking?
While many doctors and professionals recommend surgery for this particular type of issue, we are still not focused on the real “toe walking problem.” The real issue we should be correcting is the child’s vestibular to help calm the symptoms of toe walking while helping them improve the learning challenges associated with the signs. Surgery or prism lenses may still be needed, however, using activities at home and in school can improve your child’s vestibular used for higher learning.
Dr. Edelson, also said, “The vestibular system provides the brain with feedback regarding body motion and position. It may be possible to reduce or eliminate toe walking by providing the person with therapeutic vestibular stimulation (e.g., being swung on a glider swing).”
If your child is prone to toe walking, there are exercises to do in your home that can help. These exercises will not only help them walk on their heels, they will also improve your child’s vestibular system.
I recently talked with a mom who bought her child some scuba flippers and used them with her child at home. She said it was amazing how it was next to impossible for her child to toe-walk because flippers were created for walking heel to toe. It improved her child’s toe walking symptoms immensely.
Marching and stomping are actions that require the entire foot to make contact with the ground. They also can be made into a game. You can play music or sing songs to the beat of their marching. They can be in their own marching band or stomping trolls. They never need to know their working on their walking habits.
Running up hill stretches the tendon and muscle by keeping the toes pointed up. Once they’re at the top they can let loose and run back to the bottom, or my kids favorite, roll. With a little spotting they can also get the same exercise walking up slides or other inclines. These are also great activities that help them work out the toe-walking without them being any the wiser. You can just be the cool parent that encourages them to go up the slide instead of telling them no.
You can purchase shoes with squeakers or wheels in the heels. For those that like the squeaky noises, they’re an incentive to get their heel to the ground. For those who aren’t swayed by the noise, the wheeled shoes are a good alternative. These shoes require kids to pick their toes up off the ground in order to roll. This gets them accustomed to the pressure on their heels as well as stretching that tendon.
For the kids with SPD, you can encourage them to walk around barefoot on a variety of surfaces to expose them to different textures. Or you can make games. Have them walk through a gauntlet of textures from soft blankets to squishy shaving cream. They can also do art with their feet with a little paint and paper.
It’s never too early to teach them how to drive, right? Teaching them how to hold their feet while pretending to drive is another stretching exercise. They think they’re playing a fun game and they have your attention and you’re doing your part to help them out without a fight to complete special exercises.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs