Some kids, even from an early age, are agile and surefooted. Others? Well, it might seem that gravity has it in for some children.
This is certainly true for 3-year-old Lilly. Her mother, Amy Meyer, once signed an incident report that simply read, “Lily was standing in line at the water fountain and fell.”
As odd as the description might sound, Amy says these sorts of incidents were common for Lilly.
“We administered a popsicle and a hug,” she says.
Everyone experiences times of clumsiness, children included. Most of the time, these clumsy kids fall within the range of what’s normal or temporary. However, parents also should understand typical triggers and be on the lookout for when it’s time to involve a professional.
Being a kid will lead to clumsiness. As a child grows, they have to relearn their body position and center of gravity. Therefore, growth spurts tend to be a time of increased clumsiness, and behavior considered extreme or worrisome will be different for every age. For example, a 2-year-old is going to have a lot of falls, says Lori Grisez, PT, DPT for Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
“New walkers can fall up to 17 times an hour,” she says. “They’ll fall dozens of times per day.”
That can sound like a lot to parents, but at this stage the child is supposed to be learning and practicing how to move around. So, some tumbles are to be expected.
Teenagers, on the other hand, shouldn’t be falling down inexplicably. A growth spurt can still set them up for a little bit more clumsiness as they adjust to longer limbs, but that shouldn’t lead to outright falls.
“They might stumble, but it should not lend itself to falls,” Grisez says.
Parents also can play a role in these growth-spurt struggles. For example, mom and dad might think it is a good idea to buy shoes the next size up for their growing child. That will give them “room to grow,” and save a few dollars down the line. Grisez cautions against this, however.
“A child is not able to feel or accommodate for that extra length in the shoe and that can cause more catching their toes while they’re walking or trying to step over obstacles,” she says.
Your Child’s Personal Traits
Differences in the way children interact with the world can contribute to that wide range of normal. Some children (and adults) are just more observant and aware of their surroundings and can handle the unexpected without being knocked off kilter; a less observant person, meanwhile, may be more prone to clumsiness.
Also, children who experience attention or focus issues can experience more clumsiness.
“If you have a child with ADD or ADHD, that can impact their attention to the world around them,” Grisez says. “A little bit of clumsiness can be related to their inability to focus or pay attention to things. ”
When children’s clumsiness impacts their daily life and safety, it’s time to check to see if there’s an underlying factor, like vision and/or hearing impairment.
We might associate children’s vision impairment with things like not being able to see the board in class, but in this case, vision impairment means you are not able to see in order to navigate or recognize changes in the environment around you, like changes in surface heights.
Hearing loss affects movement because the vestibular system, which contributes to balance, is in the inner ear. Hearing and balance are inextricably linked, Grisez says.
“Oftentimes, when you have a hearing loss, you will also have an impact to that vestibular system, which can throw off your balance significantly,” she says.
She recommends that children who have balance issues, reading issues or experience dizziness should be screened for vestibular impact in order to determine if there’s an issue that could improve with therapy.
Ear infections also can cause a temporary increase in clumsiness but should improve as the affected ear heals. Children who have chronic ear infections may have what Grisez calls a “balance deficit” and should be screened for balance issues or coordination challenges.
“Oftentimes, that improves if they have tubes placed,” she says, “but they should be screened and considered for any additional therapy needs.”
When clumsiness impacts daily life, learning and safety in ways that affect a child’s independence and ability to perform age-appropriate self-care activities, there is a formal diagnosis called Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). A child who struggles in one or two areas may not require a formal diagnosis, but may benefit from physical therapy. Your pediatrician can help you navigate any concerns.