Don't Wreck Your Child's Feet: How To Choose Healthy Shoes

"It took 4 million years of evolution to perfect the human foot. But we’re wrecking it with every step we take." NYMag

My toddler is nearly always barefoot. Yes, even in public. He rides the escalator up and down at Whole Foods, sits with us at restaurants and runs through department stores -- all without shoes on his feet. To a stranger, we might seem like careless parents, but it's actually a very conscious decision on our part. We only put his shoes on if we feel a need for them or if we're going to get kicked out of the library, and even then, they're "barefoot" / minimalist shoes that meet every requirement in this post.


Why We Choose Barefoot (or "Barefoot Shoes"!)

  • We want our child's feet to develop properly. 

In our culture, we don’t create shoes that follow the natural shape of the foot. Instead, we create shoes that reflect how we want feet to look. So, beginning in infancy — when bones are still forming — we put our children in shoes that permanently change the shape of their feet. And changing the shape will, of course, alter how effectively they work.

  • Modern shoes prevent children from learning how to walk. (The right way!)
"Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person. It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot." -- Dr. William A. Rossi

Most of us not only have deformed feet, we're also walking wrong. The cushioning on our shoes encourages us to land on our heels -- called a "heel strike" -- and this technique is why 80% of runners today get injured once a year. We're actually supposed to land on the middle to front part of our foot, with the heel coming down afterward. If we put the wrong shoes on our children as soon as they start walking, they develop an unnatural gait from the start.

  • Feet are built to communicate. 

Our feet are the first point of contact that we have with the Earth. For this reason, they have one of the highest concentrations of nerve-endings in the entire body (200,000!) and 70% of our brain's movement information comes from our feet. When a child runs in the grass with bare feet, their feet are continually sending messages to their brain. Clunky, tight, poorly designed shoes block that communication. They inhibit sensory feedback from the ground below us and we need that feedback for optimal movement.

  • Barefoot is safer. 

Since the day our son wore his first pair of shoes, something has become plainly obvious to me: He is more clumsy with shoes on. In fact, the difference is so profound that we usually rush to take his shoes off as soon as he shows any interest in climbing. (We don’t want any accidents if we can avoid them!) 

More contact with the Earth means more communication, heightened awareness and less falls. The bottoms of our feet are very sensitive for a reason- to quickly read, respond, and adapt to the environment. When barefoot, we are better able to balance, climb, and adjust rapidly when the ground shifts beneath us, as it does when we walk on uneven terrain. If we want our children to be safe, we can't interfere with their body's natural ability to communicate with the environment. We can't choose shoes that limit the messages that are sent to our child’s developing brain.

  • What impacts our feet, impacts the rest of our body.

About 25% of the bones in our body reside in our feet and ankles, and 25% of all muscles and motor nerves are dedicated to our feet. When we wear the wrong footwear for many years, our feet lose dexterity and muscle control, and can no longer perform well. Because of this, other parts of the body must compensate. Proper "barefoot" or "minimalist" footwear helps to prevent posture issues, knee, back and hip problems, soreness and pains by allowing our feet to function as they should.

  • The natural human foot is alive and capable of so much more than we realize. We don't want to take that away from our children.
"Imagine all of the unique motions you can create with your fingers, lifting them one or two at a time, playing a piano, or even typing. We have the same potential in our feet as we do our hands, but we have casted these muscle groups via footwear, so we have been left with stiff, weak, atrophied and degenerating tissues in the feet." Katy Bowman, Simple Steps to Foot Health


The Natural Human Foot

 My son's perfect feet vs. Mine. Notice how my big toe isn't straight and my pinky toe is tucked. I've made a lot of progress, but have some more work to do!

My son's perfect feet vs. Mine. Notice how my big toe isn't straight and my pinky toe is tucked. I've made a lot of progress, but have some more work to do!

To know how to pick the right shoes, we first need to understand the natural human foot.

Look down at your own bare feet, right now. They seem like "normal" feet, huh? Just like everyone else's.

But here's a surprising fact: Almost all adult Americans have foot anatomy that isn't what nature intended.

The human foot is actually designed to be widest at the very ends of the toes. We see this in cultures where people don't wear immobilizing footwear, or on a newborn baby -- before their feet get ruined by years of wearing the wrong shoes. Their feet are broader and flatter, without upturned toes. The big toe points straight, even slightly out. There is space between the toes. They're not squeezed together and they don't taper, as is the case for many adult Americans. 

Surprisingly, this isn't new information. It has actually been in the medical literature for over a century, since Dr. Phil Hoffman traveled to numerous undeveloped countries in 1905 to observe the feet of people who lived barefoot. These differences in foot anatomy might seem small, but they're actually highly significant and can negatively impact the entire body.



What To Look For In A Pair of Shoes

 (Softstar Shoes)

(Softstar Shoes)

When parents shop for shoes, they usually do so with only one or two basic requirements in mind: They want the shoe to fit and they want it to look okay. But oftentimes we don't ask the most important question: Is this shoe actually healthy for my child's feet? Nine times out of ten, the answer is no. In fact, I've scoured several walls of children's shoes and have never found a shoe that meets the requirements listed here. Not one pair. 

Feet need space to move and grow, so try to find a shoe that matches the natural shape of your child's foot.  

Characteristics to look for:

  • THIN. This allows more sensory information from the ground. 
  • WIDE TOE BOX. Can the toes spread comfortably? Chronic toe squeezing weakens the muscles of the toes and adds unnecessary stress while standing or walking. A wide toe box allows toes to move, which improves balance and stability and promotes healthy foot development.
  • FLEXIBLE. This enables us to distribute forces properly while we're walking. If the shoe is too stiff, we can't do that as well.
  • NO ANKLE SUPPORT. Freedom of movement exercises the whole foot and ankle.
  • NO HEEL / "Zero Drop". This simply means that the shoe is even and flat -- from heel to toe. It may surprise you, but even “flats” and athletic shoes often have 1/4 to 1/2 inch heels! Heels mess with alignment. The calves and achilles on the back of the leg get shortened, which can lead to longterm issues.
  • STAYS ON THE FOOT. This means no flip flops or slippers. When we wear shoes like this, our feet have to constantly grip the shoe while we walk, to make sure it stays on. This is unnatural, causing pressure and tension in the feet and legs. Make sure the shoe stays on the foot without that grip!

A Fun Shoe Test: Ask your child to step on a piece of paper. Trace around their foot with a pen, and then place one of their shoes on top. Is the shoe more narrow than the foot you just traced? If so, get rid of them! Adults, you should try this one too.


Favorite Brands

These brands offer sizes for both children and adults. Vivo and Wildling have vegan options. 



For More Learning:

Book: Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear (Katy Bowman)

Podcast: Rewild Yourself #140 -- The Barefoot Podiatrist

Instagram: The Foot Collective and Katy Bowman

Video: "The Barefoot Professor" Daniel Lieberman - Barefoot Running

Articles: You Walk Wrong and Let Them Go Barefoot: Why Our Toddler Doesn't Wear Shoes