Walking and how it develops
Children develop the skills for walking at various ages. Children’s walking skills develop more or less quickly too. But typically developing children usually gain these skills in the same order:
- By about 9 months, some children might take their first steps with someone holding their hands.
- By about 12 months, some children might be able to stand alone, sidestep around furniture, and walk unaided with their legs wide apart.
- By about 15 months, some children might take uneven steps and walk with ‘flat feet’. Children might also walk by pushing toy barrows, carts, trolleys and so on.
- By about 18 months, most children are walking well with their legs closer together. They can start and stop easily. They might also be starting to go up stairs or run.
It takes several years before children can walk in the same way that adults walk.
Some neurological conditions like cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy might lead to delays in walking and the development of gait disorders. And sometimes autistic children have delays in walking and gait disorders too.
If your child hasn’t learned to walk independently by the age of 18 months or if you have concerns about your child’s development, speak with your GP, child and family health nurse or paediatrician. They can help you work out whether something is affecting your child’s ability to walk.
About gait disorders in children
- pigeon toe or in-toeing
- toe walking.
Pigeon toe or in-toeing
Children with pigeon toe might trip or fall a lot. They might also have an unusual running style with their feet swinging out as they run.
Pigeon toe is generally painless, unless it’s severe.
Out-toeing is where one or both feet turn out while children are walking. Out-toeing can develop as children grow, and it often appears by about five years of age. Sometimes it happens suddenly in late childhood or adolescence.
Out-toeing can be caused by foot problems like flat feet or problems with the alignment of the shin or thigh bone. Sudden out-toeing in late childhood or adolescence might be caused by a hip joint problem.
Out-toeing is generally painless, unless it’s severe.
Out-toeing is less common than pigeon toe.
Sometimes children start walking on their toes as soon as they start to walk. Toe walking is common in children up to 2-3 years of age. It usually improves by itself with time.
If toe walking doesn’t improve, over time it can make leg muscles tighter or shorter. This might lead to balance problems and muscles that get sore after a lot of walking.
Bow legs and knock knees are common conditions in young children. Although they aren’t gait disorders, they can affect the way children walk if they’re severe enough.
Does your child need to see a health professional about gait disorders?
Yes. You should take your child to your GP if your child:
- is 18 months or older and not walking independently yet
- has signs of severe pigeon toe or out-toeing
- has pigeon toe or out-toeing that’s worse on one leg compared with the other leg
- trips or falls a lot
- has toe walking that hasn’t gone away by the age of about three years
- has pigeon toe or out-toeing that’s getting worse
- can’t or won’t put weight on a leg
- complains of hip or knee pain, particularly while running or playing sports or if their ability to run or play sports is affected
- has walking issues that come on suddenly or after a fall.
You should also take your child to the GP if you have any concerns about your child’s ability to walk.
Diagnosing gait disorders
Your GP will look at how your child walks and might do a physical examination of your child’s joints and muscles.
Sometimes these health professionals will ask for an X-ray, MRI or CT scan so they can see whether there are any structural problems with your child’s feet or legs that might be causing walking problems.
Treatment for gait disorders
- gentle strengthening exercises
- orthotics to wear in their shoes
- a series of lower leg casts to stretch the leg muscles.
Early identification of gait disorders is important. It means that your health professional can monitor your child’s development over time and recommend treatment if needed.
Preventing gait disorders
When young children first learn to walk, bare feet are best when it’s safe. Wearing shoes can actually make early walking harder. And when it’s time for shoes, it’s best for your child to wear supportive and well-fitting shoes. Having your child’s shoes fitted by a child shoe specialist is a good idea.