My children loved the book Two Shoes, New Shoes by Shirley Hughes. There are certainly some significant considerations when deciding on shoes. These go beyond cuteness and fashion.
The importance of barefoot
I have to say that there is absolutely nothing more adorable than those little, fat feet that demand kisses. Over and above the cuteness factor, these little feet contain a considerable number of nerves. These nerves send critical messages from the environment to the brain.
Babies learn to walk from about 9 months to 18 months. From early on, they experience movement when they crawl, shuffle on their bottoms, pull themselves to standing and start cruising around the furniture. In doing so, they begin to experience different pressure under their feet. The pressure and movement strengthen the muscles and ligaments, giving the baby greater stability on their feet.
This pressure felt under the foot spreads across the soles of the feet and activates the nerves that feed information to the brain. These nerve endings are called proprioceptors and send signals to the brain and allow your baby to be aware of motion and their position in relation to the space around them. Proprioception is part of the sensory system.
The vestibular system also forms part of the sensory system and is responsible for balance and coordination. The development of these senses is hugely influenced by the sensory input your baby receives through their feet. This is especially true during the first couple of years of life, from birth to childhood.
By now, I am sure you are seeing where this is going. Babies need to feel the pressure under their feet to achieve this significant milestone. Shoes may interfere with muscle development and the experience of pressure under the feet, thereby negatively affecting walking and other essential cognitive development.
Being barefoot has many benefits over and above the ones mentioned above. These include:
- Improved motor skills – A child with good proprioception and vestibular sense will have greater confidence in their body, impacting physical, emotional and learning skills. These systems ensure good balance, eye-hand coordination and muscle tone. These are essential for both gross and fine motor skills.
- Good gait – Gait refers to the way we walk. Going barefoot allows the ligaments and muscles in the foot to strengthen and distribute body weight evenly through both feet. This ensures that your child is able to walk correctly.
- Prevents injury – Children allowed to go barefoot develop a strong sense of awareness through their feet. A bare foot will easily detect a sharp object that could cut or a slippery surface that may cause the child to fall. Being barefoot engages the arch of the foot.
This strengthens the ankles and leg muscles, making injuries like a twisted ankle less likely. Children that go barefoot tend to develop wider feet and strong muscles. This helps with the stability of many joints, including knees, hips and ankles, making injuries later in life less of an issue.
A time and place for shoes
If you are concerned that your baby’s feet are getting cold, socks or babygrows with rubber grips keep the toes warm and protect the little feet without restricting any digits. All the research agrees that a child should not wear shoes before walking.
If shoes are required, then it is essential to remember that these little feet are very different from adult feet. Until 6 months, the feet are predominantly cartilage with 22 partially developed bones which ossify to become 26 bones in the adult foot. A little fat pad covers the arch of the foot, making the foot appear flat. This is absolutely normal up to the age of 18 months.
Some children may have flat feet up until the age of 6 years, and unless they are experiencing pain, no corrective shoes should be worn. The bones in the feet are soft and pliable and don’t harden until the child is about 5 years old. It is only around the age of 18 years that the foot is fully matured. Obviously, there will be plenty of times where a child simply has to wear shoes. If you are going into a space like a shop, a playground, a school or onto a hot road, shoes will be necessary.
Criteria for choosing shoes
To quote from a podiatry journal, “In generations past, podiatrists believed that the inflexible support of high-topped shoes helped kids’ feet maintain optimal position and stability. Over the years, though, children’s podiatry specialists began to recognize that the bones in baby feet are pliable and do not sufficiently harden until four to five years of age.
Wearing rigid shoes over extended periods before the bones are fully fortified can negatively impact your child’s development. Another concern is in the process of learning to walk. Baby shoes clearly add weight to the feet and increase the likelihood and frequency of tripping and falling. Yes, these shoes are cute, but the proper growth and development of the feet should be first priority.”
What you need to look for when buying child’s shoes:
- Wide toe box – when you stand barefoot, your toes actually splay out. This means that shoes should have enough room so that the toes aren’t squashed together. Get your child to stand up and then check the distance from the toe to the end of the shoe. A good guide is that there should be about 1,25cm between the longest toe and end of the shoe. This is about a thumb width. There should be at least 5mm space between all toes and the rim of the shoe.
- Closed toes – When the toes are open, your child is more likely to trip or stub their little toes.
- Lightweight material – heavy, chunky material makes the shoes heavy and may put strain on the growing muscles.
- Protective flexible sole – the aim of the shoe is to protect your child’s feet from being hurt by objects in the environment. These include sticks, glass and stones. At the same time, the sole needs to be flexible enough for your child to feel any changes in the surface they are walking on. Remember how important it is for your child to receive signals through their soles. The feedback they receive is important for proprioception. It also teaches your child to walk differently on different surfaces and helps to strengthen the muscles of the feet and ankles.
- Firm but flexible heel – The heel of your foot ensures that the foot is in the correct position for walking. A very flimsy heel doesn’t provide any support, but a rigid heel may lead to abnormal heel positioning. You are looking for a heel that can be compressed slightly when you pinch it.
- Velcro or adjustable straps – We spoke about the little fat pad. This can mean your toddler’s feet are thinner or fatter than the next child’s. These straps allow you to adjust the shoe to fit your child’s foot. It also helps your child become more independent because they can open the straps easily and remove their shoes when necessary.
I love it when nature knows best, and this certainly goes for the advantages of going barefoot rather than wearing shoes. Thankfully, our South African climate allows lots of outdoor activity and opportunities to experience so much while barefoot.
The benefits are enormous, but a time and place does come for us to put those new shoes onto our toddler’s feet. When you do have to do this, remember that your child’s feet are critical to motor development and a host of other important functions. Forget fashion and do your homework on the shoes you choose. It really is an important decision.
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