For certain generations, though less so today, baby shoes carried such emotional significance that people would bronze them to preserve the memory of a child’s first steps.
But as heart-meltingly cute as they are, tiny sneakers and Mary Janes are not the best way for a toddler to start toddling, child and foot doctors say.
So when should a baby start wearing shoes? And what kind?
“It’s a really common question, and you hear completely opposite suggestions,” said Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician and owner of Primrose School of Legacy, a private preschool, in Omaha, Neb. “Some say to buy the rigid soles; others say that kids should go barefoot.”
While the old thinking held that rigid high-tops helped keep a child’s foot in position and offered stability, doctors today tend to agree that less is more when it comes to shoes in the first few years of life.
“After they start walking, you want them either barefoot or in the most flexible shoe possible so their muscles can develop properly,” said Dr. Jane Andersen, a podiatrist in Chapel Hill, N.C., and past president of the American Association for Women Podiatrists. “Flexibility is the most important issue as they are developing their arch.”
The bones in a baby’s foot are soft and don’t finish hardening until a child is around 5 years old, though kids’ feet keep growing into their teenage years. In theory, constricting soft feet with rigid shoes could prevent the bones from developing properly, Andersen said.
Also, stiffer soles can make walking harder for those just starting out because their feet are heavier, making them more likely to trip, Jana said.
Before a baby starts walking, bare feet or socks are best, though any kind of shoes can be worn for decoration or warmth or to help keep the socks on, Andersen said. There’s no harm done when shoes encase dangling feet, as long as they are not too tight or uncomfortable or have straps pinching their flesh, she said.
Once infants start taking steps, going barefoot is still ideal because they learn to walk and balance better when they can use their toes to grip, Jana said. To keep feet clean, warm and protected from the minefield of things they could step on, use socks with rubber grips on the bottom, so that they don’t slip, Jana said.
When kids start tottering around outside and need more protection than socks provide, choose flexible shoes that you can bend in half and twist, Andersen said. Rubber soles are better than leather because they are less likely to slip. Aim for soft materials for the upper part of the shoe so that the foot bends easily and the material doesn’t cut into the skin.
Closed-toe shoes are best, Jana added, because kids tend to drag their toes and might scratch their toes in open-toed shoes.
Andersen said she has been impressed with Stride Rite, a children’s footwear manufacturer that emphasizes healthy foot development and does thorough fittings, though people who can’t afford to spend $40 on a new pair of shoes every six months can do the bend-and-twist test at any retailer.
“They’re not necessarily going to be wearing them that long, so I certainly wouldn’t go all out and buy the big fancy whatever,” said Jana, who has three kids of her own. She said the most important thing is to ensure the kids are comfortable.
“The only thing I warn people about is that kids who are just learning to walk aren’t terribly verbal,” Jana said. “So you may not know why the child is upset but it turns out the shoe is too tight or rubbing, or they have a blister.”
At 4 or 5 years old, kids can start wearing shoes with more support, Andersen said. The same guidelines apply to kids who are pigeon-toed or have other foot deformities, though if parents are concerned they should see a podiatrist to determine if special accommodations are needed, she said. Conditions like club feet require physician attention and sometimes casting and surgery.