Baby shoes are cute as hell. And that’s the reason they were once bronzed and saved as a memento to mark the passing from babyhood. But cuteness has nothing to do with necessity. And while baby shoes are adorable, are they a necessity? After all, humans learned to walk shoeless for eons. The oldest pair of surviving footwear is only about 10,000 years old. That’s fairly recent in the grand scheme of human evolution. But that’s not to say that kids taking their first bold, wobbly steps into the world don’t need kicks. They do. The question is: When and why?
The answer to those question is embedded in the mechanics of how children learn to walk in the first place. Watch babies taking their first assisted steps and you’ll note that they’re pretty stompy. They might come down flat footed or maybe on the balls of their feet. The trick is in turning that to the more graceful version of human mobility.
“Toddlers need to walk barefoot because they learn best by gripping the ground with bare feet in a heel to toe manner,” explains Dr. Tanya Altmann, founder of Calabasas Pediatrics and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That means that a majority of learning to walk can really be accomplished sans shoes. That’s because it’s necessary for the full foot to come into contact with the ground, from padded heel to pushing off from toes spread by the weight of the body. It’s a sloppy process at first, but one that needs to be felt.
But it’s not just the mechanics of a bare foot that help a baby learn to walk. It’s also the texture of the ground. The foot is home to tons of nerve endings. While part of the purpose of those nerve endings on the feet is certainly to warn of dangers like heat, cold, and sharp objects, they’re also crucial in helping the body understand where it is in space. This is called proprioception, and exposing the foot to a variety of textures is key to its development. “It helps children’s balance and coordination to feel different textures,” says Altmann. Barefoot is best for this, but “there are some sneakers like Stride Rite SRT that work using that theory,” she says.
Given all of this, the question remains: Why would a parent want to put shoes on a new walker at all? The answer rests with the most obvious purpose for all those nerve endings. Shoes provide protection from the elements. “If the ground is rough, hot or there might be a rock, thorn or bee that your toddler could step on, shoes are a good idea to protect their feet from injury,” explains Altmann. But not just any shoe. “Look for a sneaker-type shoe with a flexible sole, breathable material, curved edges to help decrease stumbles and falls, while leaving room to grow,” she explains.
And grow they will. They will grow so quickly, in fact, that a new walker will likely need a new pair about once every 3 months. Without them, their feet could become constricted and pained. That’s true if they are in the wrong shoes too. “I see some parents buying small versions of their own favorite brand,” says Altmann. “And while they may be super cute and stylish, they often aren’t designed to properly fit a toddlers growing and developing feet.”
She warns parents to avoid shoes that are inflexible with flat soles. These could easily lead to stumbles and falls. Also, open toed shoes for new walkers could cause injuries to all those industrious, market-going, roast-beef eating piggies.
Still, while parents should be motivate to shod their kids appropriately, Altmann suggests parents take a cue from our human ancestors. “Remember it’s also important to give your toddler some time to explore the outdoors and feel sand and grass beneath their bare feet.”