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 about 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, 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.
At 4 or 5 years old, kids can start wearing shoes with more support, Andersen said.
Dr. Jane Andersen, a podiatrist in Chapel Hill, N.C., offered a few tips for getting the right baby shoes:
Don’t share or hand down baby shoes, especially ones that were worn every day. Shoes need to be broken into a child’s individual foot.
Fit shoes toward the end of the day when the feet are a little swollen.
Make sure the child runs around the shoe store and likes the shoes for their comfort, not just their sparkles. If you see any grimaces or complaints, steer clear of that pair.
Choose shoes that have a little less than your thumb’s width of room at the toe so that your child can grow into it. When their toe approaches the end, it’s time to buy a new pair.