There are many rites of passage from babyhood to childhood, but buying the first pair of shoes ranks among the really big ones. One minute your baby is lying in the cot, sucking his little toes; the next, he’s in miniature Start-rites and toddling off towards full independence. It’s tempting – especially for shoe-loving mummies – to dive straight into the nearest shoe shop and start cooing over the gorgeous little creations as soon as your toddler takes her first hesitant steps. However, it seems that this temptation is one we should resist. In the last decade, paediatric and orthopaedic researchers have agreed that babies learn to crawl, pull themselves up, cruise and walk most effectively with bare feet.
Research has shown that babies develop stronger, more coordinated foot muscles when they are allowed to go barefoot most of the time.“Assuming the surface is safe, it’s absolutely right that babies and small children should go barefoot as much as possible,”says Fred Beaumont of the Institute of Chiropodists and Podiatrists. Even socks can restrict small feet that need the freedom to move about and exercise. “Children’s bones are very malleable and can be pushed out of shape very quickly and easily,” say Beaumont. “Once that’s happened, you can’t reverse it.”
Dr Carol Frey is an Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery in Manhattan Beach, California. She too emphasises that there’s no rush to get your child into her first pair of shoes. “We are no different from any other animal. We don’t need shoes for proper foot development,” she says. Walking requires the brain to be in constant communication with the feet. Nerve endings on the soles of the feet sense the ground beneath the feet, and send messages to the brain that help it determine how and where weight should be distributed with each new step. Shoes, however, muffle these messages.
When you see your toddler pootling along on his delicate little feet, it can be tempting to think that they might need some support. Indeed, only 20 years ago it was believed that newly walking toddlers should wear stiff, high-top leather shoes to support their ankles. Now, though, this idea has been discredited. “Toddlers really don’t need support when they start walking,” says Beaumont. “Their feet can support them perfectly well on their own.” This is borne out by research done at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center into the way that babies learn to walk. Researchers used computer-assisted foot-pressure sensors and slow-motion videos and discovered that babies walk with a rocking heel-toe motion (just like adults), and their ankles are perfectly stable. This shows that bare feet are best for babies.