Baby shoes are beyond adorable, but in truth, they are not necessary. In fact, they may hinder your toddler’s development with walking.
When a baby is born, the bones in their feet are still hardening. Wearing shoes at such a young age may alter their developmental growth, conforming the foot to the shape of the shoe rather than the needs of their environment. In addition, thick soles found in some shoes restrict the range of movement necessary to learn how to walk.
As babies grow and become walking toddlers, they receive so much feedback from the ground through their bare feet. With each step, they learn to how to shift their weight from their heel, roll to the ball of their foot, and push off with their toes spread, repeating the process from side to side.
The more they walk, the more their muscle groups strengthen and their gait/stance/alignment improves, protecting their bones and joints. They learn appropriate body mechanics to maximize the efficiency of movement.
Like the hands, feet also have a lot of nerve endings to determine physical characteristics of what they are stepping on. This input helps the child develop their proprioception (sense of knowing how their body is oriented in relation to their environment), as well as recruit their vestibular system which aids in balance and coordination. Both systems improve through trial-and-error as they learn to navigate their surroundings with two feet.
For example, the feel of walking on plush carpet is different than the feel of walking outside in the grass. Once the toddler can “feel” their way around these different environments, they can choose their steps and control their bodies accordingly.
How can shoes affect walking?
For infants, crib shoes or moccasins are mainly for fashion and to keep their feet warm. Infants don’t actually take steps in these shoes and, unless they are outside and it’s too cold for just socks, they just don’t serve a purpose. Crib shoes are measured by age (0-3 months, 3-6 months, etc.).
For toddlers, when they wear stiffer, cushioned shoes, they get restricted feedback from the terrain. This results in clumsiness, toe-walking, or other tactile sensitivities due to limited exposure to various surfaces. Toddler shoes are measured by foot length (sizes 3, 4, 5, and so on).
When and where should they go barefoot?
- Inside the home, for both carpet and solid flooring
- Outside in the grass or around the home (driveway, deck, or porch)
- The beach or a clean sandbox
- The pool or a splashpad
When and where should they wear shoes?
- When they need protection from some harsh elements (surfaces that are too hot/cold)
- When walking on paved areas (sidewalks)
- Playground areas that are mulched or graveled
- Areas where floor surfaces may be unsanitary
- Public establishments that require shoes
With that in mind, shoes that are have a flexible or soft sole with breathable material are helpful when roaming around outdoors in unsafe terrain.
Once your child is successful in walking and running, they can graduate to wearing “typical” shoes that provide more support. Of course, still let them run through the wet grass…bare feet and all.
“When Should a Toddler Wear Shoes?“, Patrick, A. Coleman. Fatherly, 2017.
“Being Barefoot Benefits Brain Development“, Sara Burrows. Return to Now, 2018.
“Why barefoot is best for children“. The Guardian, 2010.