As little Abigail Palframan began to toddle around the house, the fact that she was limping wasn’t obvious at first.
The youngster was only just starting to find her feet and all toddlers are a bit wobbly to begin with.
Samantha and Tony Palframan thought the trouble she was having with her left leg was just part of their little girl learning to walk.
But when others began to notice, they decided to get Abigail checked out, prompting the start of a worrying time for them all.
‘When she first started walking she had a little bit of a limp,’ remembers Samantha.
‘We just put it down to her starting to walk around. But we were at my brother’s wedding last August when quite a lot of people noticed she was limping quite badly and after that I took her to the doctor’s.’
The GP discovered that Abigail’s hip clicked and immediately referred her to see a specialist at Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital.
Within a week, she had been diagnosed with developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH) – a condition that, if left untreated, can result in permanent disability.
Up to 2,000 children a year are diagnosed with DDH, the term given to describe a range of problems to do with the ball and socket joint of the hip.
All babies’ hips are checked at birth and again when they’re aged between six and eight weeks. But if the problem hasn’t developed by then, or has been missed, it might cause problems in later life.
Early detection means DDH can often be corrected easily but a later diagnosis can leave a child requiring hospital stays and operations.
When Abigail was born she spent the first two weeks of her life in intensive care, so Samantha doesn’t remember her baby’s hips ever being mentioned.
At the start of baby hip health awareness week, the 31-year-old hopes other parents will know what to look out for in future. Organised by the charity Steps, the week aims to educate people to prevent unnecessary pain and disability in later life.
‘I’d never heard of DDH before,’ says Samantha, from Hilsea.
‘It was devastating because I went to see the specialist thinking that it was going to be one leg longer than the other, something that could be sorted out quite easily.
‘When they went through the procedures and what was going to happen it was quite upsetting.’
Abigail was diagnosed in October 2011 and Samantha went online to find out more about what to expect. She soon discovered Steps’ website and found the support on offer reassuring.
Abigail’s first ordeal was spending a week in traction, with her legs strapped-up and elevated to position her hips for the first round of surgery.
Her big brothers Kieron, nine, and seven-year-old Joshua, visited her at QA as often as possible and the family had to juggle normal life with caring for Abigail.
‘They say you’ll be amazed at how they will cope but you don’t believe it until you see it yourself,’ adds Samantha.
‘When she was in traction another family asked if they could see her because their child was going to go through the same thing. It was nice to be able to show them and help them with it.
‘She was strapped up like that for the whole week, there was no escape from it.
‘You think they would get frustrated, it’s amazing that she slept.’
Under general anaesthetic, surgeons later injected a dye into Abigail’s hip to reveal the full extent of her problem.
Samantha and Tony were told that if she came out of theatre with a cast on, they would know the procedure had worked.
Abigail came out without a cast – indicating that she’d need another operation.
Her hip socket wasn’t deep enough for the ball of the joint which meant the surgeons needed to clean it out.
In November, Abigail went through a four-hour operation which involved cutting away at the hip and popping the joint back in place.
Abigail – now 21 months old – came out with a bright pink cast from her waist down to her ankles and was allowed to return home three days later.
‘She had the cast for six weeks,’ says Samantha.
‘The only problem was that she couldn’t sleep in her bed because of the position she was in. So she had to sleep on the sofa with me down here as well.’
If the DDH had been spotted when Abigail was a baby, she probably would have only needed to wear a harness to fix the problem.
As it was, she had to wear a second cast for another six weeks and will need regular check-ups until she’s a teenager.
Samantha thinks it’s important that all parents know the signs to look out for to make sure a problem can be spotted as early as possible.
‘Watch if they’ve got a limp, or drag one leg behind them,’ she says.
‘Or when you’re changing their nappy see if one leg doesn’t go out to the side.
‘I didn’t notice that one leg wasn’t going out as far but when the specialist showed us it was really obvious.
‘If midwives pointed it out to more people it would probably cost the NHS a lot less and save them going through the operations.’
Abigail’s last cast was removed on January 31 and everyone was eager to see whether she would regain her mobility.
On the first day her parents were delighted to see her crawl. But a sudden jolt meant she hurt her hip and that gave her a fright.
‘Over the last week or two she’s just started walking again,’ says Samantha, as chatty Abigail scrambles up the side of the sofa to sit beside her.
‘There’s no stopping her now.’