One of the cutest items you see at baby showers are those itty-bitty baby shoes.
And not only are they cute, sometimes they even keep those pesky newborn socks from constantly falling off!
As cute as they are, it turns out modern infant shoes can actually interfere with babies’ development, especially as they’re learning how to walk.
Ditch the cute baby shoes – Experts say babies should go barefoot while learning to walk
The human foot is a complex mechanical structure made up of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons.
For a toddler just learning how to walk (or even roll, play and crawl) shoes can affect how they use the muscles and bones in their feet.
How can infant shoes affect growing feet and learning to walk?
The early months and years are a period of rapid growth in children. On average, in the first year of life, infants can triple their birth weight.
Along with rapid growth, brain development and motor development progress at a fast pace. In just one year, many children learn to roll, sit, crawl, stand and even walk. As it turns out, babies learn to use their bodies best when there are no objects that interfere with the process.
For example, we have loads of baby gear designed to help babies ‘sit.’ However, according to many physical therapists and developmental specialists, they actually interfere with babies learning to use their muscles properly.
When infants are sitting unsupported, they’re engaging their core and pelvic floor muscles, and learning how to balance. In a seat, babies don’t have to engage as many muscles or pay as much attention to their balance.
For babies who are learning to move and, especially, to walk, wearing shoes can affect which muscles they use to do it. It can also interfere with their cerebral development.
A podiatrist specialising in podopaediatrics, Tracy Byrone, told The Guardian, “Toddlers keep their heads up more when they are walking barefoot. The feedback they get from the ground means there is less need to look down, which is what puts them off balance and causes them to fall down”.
Walking barefoot can help develop muscles and ligaments in the foot, and strengthen the foot’s arch. When toddlers walk barefoot, it also helps improve their proprioception (their awareness of their position in relation to the space around them), which is extremely beneficial for their motor development. Shoes can also affect posture; going barefoot contributes to good posture.
Do shoes really have an impact on a child’s development?
Most children in modernised western cultures spend quite a bit of time wearing shoes, so it can’t be that bad, right?
Certainly, most of us spent plenty of time in shoes when we were children. Our parents might even have taken us to the shoe store to get our first pair of walking shoes. They were often sturdy white shoes to help support us as we learned to toddle – or so we thought.
How many adults deal with foot pain on a regular basis? What about poor posture? Back pain? Sports injuries?
In our culture, shoes are a necessary item in modern life. Walking barefoot in busy shops, on the playground or in school hallways can pose an injury risk. But is it possible that in an attempt to protect our feet we’ve created more long-term problems?
If infants learn to walk only with shoes on, are they given the opportunity to learn to walk in their most natural state? To use the appropriate muscles without interference?
Research published in podiatry journal The Foot in 2007 suggests shoes can cause structural and functional changes in the foot. They occur when the foot needs to conform to the shape of the shoe, rather being allowed to rest and work in its natural state.
As a newer mother, I was very conscious of my infant and toddler’s footwear. I went to specialty shops looking for shoes with flexible soles. What I didn’t realise was how long we need to remain aware of our children’s footwear.
The cute little newborn feet we all love are not simply miniature versions of our adult feet. A newborn’s foot contains mostly cartilage and 22 partially developed bones which, over time, ossify to become the 26 bones in the adult human foot.
Much to my surprise, this process isn’t complete until the late teen years. That mean not only is it better for your toddler to learn to walk barefoot, but your children and teens also need proper footwear that allows their feet to grow and function as they are designed to do.
Restrictive footwear can affect how children learn to walk and use their feet. It can also determine how active they are in the future. If doing cartwheels or running is uncomfortable, a child might be less likely to engage in as much physical activity.
Should I leave my child to play barefoot?
In an ideal place, we could all walk around barefoot and use all the proper muscles. Our ancestors would’ve been barefoot when they learned to walk, and the width of their feet wouldn’t have been artificially narrowed from years of restrictive footwear.
In reality, it isn’t always safe to be barefoot. We wouldn’t want our children to step on glass on a walk to the park.
However, we can still give our children, especially our infants and toddlers, plenty of time to spend barefoot. Here are some things you can do to help your infant or toddler learn to walk properly:
- Avoid ‘fashion’ shoes. Most infants are fine in just socks or booties in cool weather. And if it’s warm, they might be able to go barefoot.
- At home, let them crawl, roll, stand, etc. while barefoot. Many homes are becoming shoe-free indoors and it’s especially beneficial for infants and toddlers.
- Make time for barefoot play outdoors; many people have safe backyards. Spend time at beaches, lakes, etc. Find safe surfaces your children can walk on and explore a variety of natural textures.
- Make sure their footwear has flexible soles, is wide enough and allows adequate room for growth without restriction.
If you have concerns about your children’s walking, or their foot development, you can talk with their paediatrician, podiatrist or physiotherapist.
The most important takeaway is simply to remember how much impact shoes can have on your children’s development. Be sure to give them plenty of time barefoot and always choose appropriate footwear.