For an aspiring ballerina, going on pointe is one of the most exciting milestones of dance training. It also can be one of the most hazardous for a young girl who isn’t quite ready to relevé onto her tippy toes. To protect your tiny dancer from injuries that might upstage her future career, consider these factors before she laces on those toe shoes.

Her age. Most girls go on pointe at 11 or 12, says Seattle podiatrist Alan Woodle, MD, the foot-and-ankle specialist for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. By then, the growth plates in the bones of the feet, ankles and heels have closed and are strong enough to support the demands of pointe work. But for a small percentage of girls, the growth plates aren’t fully mature by age 11 or 12. The only way to know for sure: Get an X-ray.

“Growth plates in X-rays look like little crack lines,” says Woodle. “I measure the diameter of the spaces between the cracks. If a child’s development is delayed, the cracks will be wider.” When that’s the case, it’s vital to put off going on pointe for a year or two. Otherwise there could be permanent damage to the growth plates.

How long she’s been dancing. A ballerina should have three or more years of classical training (two or more classes per week) under her tutu to achieve the technical ability required to safely go on pointe. “If a child starts dancing at five, stays with it and progresses steadily and on schedule, it’s likely she’ll develop the necessary skills to go on pointe by the time she’s eleven or twelve,” says Woodle. By the same token, a girl who begins dancing at, say, 10 or 11, will not be ready for toe shoes until she’s at least 13 or 14.

Her physical strength. Before going on pointe, a dancer must have a strong core, says Debra Austin, a ballet master at the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, North Carolina. That means her abdominal and pelvic muscles are able to support her, especially when she’s jumping and turning. “A dancer’s core is her ‘kitchen,’” says Austin. “It’s where her center is. It’s the key to everything.”

Strong legs are essential, too. “A ballerina should be able to relevé (rise to the tips of her toes) without toe shoes on and balance there,” says Austin.

Her foot anatomy. Poor alignment of major parts of the foot can put a young dancer at risk for serious injury if she goes on pointe. Unless she’s been injured before, an X-ray is often the only way to know if a girl has a high-risk foot type, says Woodle.

“I wish I could say every girl could dance on pointe, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” he adds.

Her foot health. Obviously a young ballerina should not go on pointe while injured. If she’s limping or favoring one foot, a foot or ankle is swollen or bruised or she complains of pain, she should put off putting on the toe shoes until she’s fully healed.

The teacher’s assessment. No matter how old she is, how long she’s been dancing or how strong her body is, a young girl should not go on pointe if her instructor feels she’s not ready for any reason.

Once a ballerina gets the green light to go on pointe, it should be reassuring to you (but maybe disappointing to her!) to know that during the first year of pointe training, students rarely stray from the barre — an important step toward protecting young feet and ankles.