Soft, flexible shoes are key for toddlers
As heart-meltingly cute as they are, doctors say tiny sneakers and sandals are not the best way for a toddler to start toddling. So when should a baby start wearing shoes? And what kind?
"It's a really common question and you hear completely opposite suggestions. Some say to buy the rigid soles, others say that children should go barefoot," says paediatrician Laura Jana.
While one older school of thought held that rigid high-topped shoes helped keep a child's foot in position and offered stability, doctors now agree that less is more when it comes to footwear in the first few years.
"After they start walking, you want them either barefoot or in the most flexible shoe possible so their muscles can develop properly. Flexibility is the most important issue as they are developing their arch," says podiatrist Jane Andersen.
The bones in a baby's feet are soft and don't finish hardening until about five years of age, although feet keep growing into their teenage years. In theory, constricting soft feet with rigid shoes could prevent bones from developing properly, she says.
Stiff soles can also make walking difficult for beginners because their feet are heavier than they would be used to, making trips and slips more likely.
Andersen says before baby starts walking, bare feet or socks are best, though shoes can be worn for decoration, warmth or to help keep the socks on.
There's no harm done when shoes encase dangling feet, as long as they are not too tight, uncomfortable or have straps pinching their flesh.
Once infants start taking steps, going barefoot is still best because they learn to walk and balance better when they can use their toes to grip, Jana says.
To keep feet clean, warm and protected from the minefield of hazards that might be trodden on, try socks with non-slip rubber grips on the bottom.
When children start tottering around outside and need more protection than socks can provide, choose flexible shoes that you can bend in half and twist, Andersen says. Rubber soles are better than leather ones because they provide more grip.
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 because children tend to drag their toes and might scratch them in open-toed shoes.
Andersen says aim for footwear manufacturers that emphasise healthy foot development and do thorough fittings. But not everyone can afford to buy new shoes every six months and if that's the case, bend and twist the shoes before you buy them.
"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," says Jana, a mother of three. She says the most important thing is to ensure your child is comfortable.
"The only thing I warn people about is that children who are just learning to walk aren't terribly verbal. 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 four or five years old, children can start wearing shoes with more support, Andersen says. The same guidelines apply for children who are pigeon-toed or have other foot deformities, although if parents are concerned they should see a podiatrist to determine if special accommodations are needed. Conditions like club feet require physician attention and sometimes casting and surgery.
Andersen also has some additional advice for parents shopping for baby shoes that are the right size and fit.
- Don't share or hand down baby shoes, especially ones that were worn every day. Shoes need to be broken in to fit each child's foot.
- To get the size right,go shopping for shoes towards the end of the day when the child's feet are a little swollen.
- Make sure your child runs around the shoe shop and likes the shoes for their comfort, not just their looks. If you see grimaces or complaints, steer clear.
- To get the right fit, select a pair of shoes that has a little less than your thumb's width of room at the toe. Once your child's toe approaches the end, it's time to buy a new pair.