Barefoot is best
[Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Flickr user hlkljgk]
One of the most frequent questions parents ask me is, “What type of shoes do you recommend for my baby?” They are often surprised by my answer.
The truth is, the best shoes for emerging and new walkers are actually no shoes at all. That’s right – barefoot is best. When babies are crawling, pulling to stand, cruising around the coffee table, and even starting to take those first few steps; they need to be able to flex their forefeet and toes. They also need as much sensory input as they can get in order to feel the floor underneath their feet and know where there feet are in relation to their body. A hard-sole shoe just doesn’t allow for that (try putting on your stiffest shoes or boots and crawling around on the floor – you’ll see what I mean).
For toddlers and young children who are already walking, parents are often concerned about what appears to be “flat feet” and wonder if a special arch support or orthotic is needed. They are relieved when I tell them this is unnecessary. Flat feet are actually quite normal until age 6 or 7. Research shows that almost all typically-developing toddlers have flat feet (no visible arch in standing). At 3 years old, the majority of children continue to have flat feet. As children grow and develop strength in their feet and ankles, their arches develop. Although parents (and sometimes therapists) are tempted to place the child in a supportive shoe or order a custom or off-the-shelf arch support, there is no evidence this is helpful. In fact, it may even be harmful. Research shows that, in cultures where children under the age of 6 rarely wear shoes, there is a lower incidence of flat foot than in (Western) cultures where children typically wear shoes at young ages. So even for preschoolers, it seems that barefoot is best.
If a parent or caregiver has to put shoes on a young child who is an emerging or new walker (perhaps the childcare center requires it or the family is attending an occasion where going barefoot may not be appropriate), I tell them to simply think of shoes as foot covers. They really serve no other purpose, and they don’t need to. For crawlers and new walkers, I typically recommend a soft-soled shoe like this:
Image from robeez.com
This is a water-resistant leather or fabric shoe (foot cover) with elastic around the ankle. The sole of the shoe is also fabric, but slightly thicker and textured to prevent falls. This type of shoe allows for almost complete freedom of movement of the foot and toes, and allows quite a bit of sensation through the foot. Name brand styles of this shoe are widely available at Department stores, baby boutiques, and on the internet; but there are several off brands you can purchase for less than half the price at discount stores.
Once children are bona fide toddlers – walking exclusively and exploring by walking over many types of surfaces, including outdoors – I recommend something like one of these:
Image from robeez.com
Image from squeakers.com
The shoe at the top is similar to the infant shoe I recommend, but it does have a slightly thicker sole to protect the foot from things like puddles and sharp rocks. The shoe at the bottom is a more traditional shoe, but still has a soft sole. When I grasp this shoe, I can easily bend the sole in half. Again, these styles of shoes are available at multiple price points – and I have had success finding them at second-hand stores as well.
So the take-home message when it comes to infant and toddler shoes is this:
1. Barefoot is best. The best shoes for young children are no shoes at all, and hard-sole shoes should be avoided.
2. Flat feet is normal for toddlers and children up to age 6. Children need time – not expensive shoes or orthotics – to develop good arches.
3. Think of infant/toddler shoes simply as foot covers. Purchase the flimsiest, thinnest-soled shoe that will fit your needs. There is no need to purchase an expensive “supportive” shoe, shoe insert, or orthotic for a child.
Of course, if you have concerns your child isn’t developing typically or if you notice her flat foot is so significant that her ankles are turning in, you should visit your doctor or physical therapist. Otherwise, have fun [not] shoe shopping!