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Make sure your child puts her best foot forward. We advise on how to choose the correct type and fit of shoes for walking.

My 10-month-old daughter is starting to take her first tentative steps. She still holds onto things for support, but she loves being able to stand and move freely, albeit on tiptoe. I make sure she wears socks with rubber grips on the soles for added traction. Lately, I’ve been looking at baby shoes and wondering whether it’s time to get her a few pairs of shoes for walking.

Barefoot is best

Podiatrists advise that you let your novice walker go barefoot where possible, unless they are walking outside and need protection from sharp objects. Babies and crawlers don’t need shoes; socks will do. Podiatrist Vernon Lever, of Lever Amler Podiatrists in Johannesburg, adds that shoes at this stage may in fact impede normal foot development, especially if the fit is incorrect. Children learning to walk get important sensory information from the soles of their feet. “It is important to allow them to go barefoot regularly to help them develop balance, co-ordination and posture.” Anette Thompson and Michael Els, of the footwear committee of the SA Podiatry Association, agree. “Barefoot is still best, at any age.”

Walk this way

Once they have been walking for a couple of months, you can start looking for suitable shoes for walking in.  Jo Frost, of the Supernanny series and author of Confident Baby Care (Orion Books) says you will know your child is ready for shoes when his toes are flat on the floor. Toddlers can still go barefoot indoors, but if you want them to wear shoes outside, opt for a lightweight shoe. Lever says: “The fit of a shoe at this stage is very important so as to not impede the development of those feet. Podiatrists agree that a first walking shoe should be slightly flexible and have a thin sole. A toddler should be able to feel the ground underneath their feet.”

If the shoe fits

Always put a good fit and comfort ahead of fashion. “You’ve got to remember that even though your baby’s walking, the bones in her feet are still soft, so it’s incredibly important that the first pair of shoes for walking be the right fit,” says Frost.

Shoe-shopping advice

Lever offers the following shoe-shopping advice:

  • Shop later in the day. “Their feet will expand about five percent by the end of the day, which makes for a better fit.”
  • To check for a good fit, have your child stand up. “There should be just enough room to squeeze your pinkie between the heel and the shoe, and the full width of your thumb should fit between the end of his toe and the tip of the shoe. That will offer some wriggle room.”
  • Choose shoes made of breathable, lightweight fabric, such as canvas, cloth or soft leather. Lever says synthetic fabrics should be avoided, as they will make your child’s foot sweat.
  • If you can’t grab any material from the top of the foot, the shoe may be too tight at the ball of the foot.
  • Abandon the myth that your child will be able to “break in” his shoes. They should be comfortable from the start. Let your child walk around the shop for a while, wearing the shoes, so that you can check her feet for irritated spots.
  • The shoe should be 12 to 16mm longer than the longest toe.
  • The sole must be flexible, to at least 55 degrees in the ball of the foot area. You should be able to bend the shoe at the ball of the foot with one finger.
  • A closed heel or heel strap is recommended. “The goal is to have a shoe that follows the foot in any movement in space without needing effort from the foot to keep it on.”
  • Shoes for infants should not weigh more than 30g, 110g for toddlers and less than 220g per shoe for teenagers. “If a child’s shoe weighs much more than your cellphone, don’t buy it.”

The same guidelines apply when it comes to buying shoes for older children, says Lever. “Healthy shoes for children are similar to healthy shoes for adults – not too high a heel, plenty of width in the toe box, soft natural materials to conform to the shape of the foot and good support.”

High heels and other no-nos

Suri Cruise, the daughter of actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, has controversially made high heels fashionable for young girls. But the Podiatry Association of SA says children should not wear heels of more than 15mm. This will protect them from possible bone deformity, muscle imbalances, and potential spine alignment issues later.

Toddlers should never wear heels, while children wearing shoes from size 12 to 2 should not have a heel elevation of more than 8mm. “Wearing heels, even if just for a little while, carries enormous risk of developing muscle imbalances, which will lead to foot or toe abnormalities in later life. Heels for children should be banned,” say Thompson and Els. They may also cause internal problems. “When barefoot, the forward angle of the pelvic bone is 25 degrees. When a little girl wears even a 30mm heel, this changes the angle to 45 degrees, causing internal organs to shift position.”

Lever says high heels could increase the risk of twisted ankles. “High heel shoes can cause physical risks of heel muscle tension, changes in the plates’ growth (the areas of developing cartilage tissue at the ends of long bones) or bone fractures.”

Other shoes to be avoided include those with built-in wheels, shoes or sandals with rigid soles, flip-flops and sandals without back straps and pumps that don’t have a strap across the foot, say Thompson and Els. And don’t buy shoes with built-in arch supports. Your child needs a light flexible shoe that allows the arch to form naturally. Specialised footwear, such as rigid-soled skateboard shoes or gumboots, should not be worn as everyday wear.

Growth

Thompson and Els estimate that your child’s feet will grow an average of two sizes per year in the first four years. But the growth may be sporadic, with a lull and then a sudden spurt of several sizes within a short period. It depends on the child and their rate of growth. So, check your child’s feet for growth (length and width) every school term, or every three months. Generally, the main growth period for girls’ feet is between eight and 13, while boys’ feet grow the most rapidly between the age of 10 and 16. To keep pace with your child’s growing foot, start a foot length chart at home, similar to a height chart.

The association urges parents to especially monitor their children’s school shoes. A survey at a Johannesburg school found that all 180 children measured were wearing the wrong size shoes by September. Some of the children already showed signs of foot problems. Don’t be fooled by advertisers who imply that January is the only time to buy new school shoes, say Thompson and Els. Replace ill-fitting school shoes when needed. “It is far better for a child to be barefoot than to be in outgrown school shoes.”

Did you know?

  • The bones in your baby’s foot are partially-developed and made of cartilage, making them pliable. They will only develop fully into bones by the time she is 18.
  • A baby’s feet can sweat twice as much as an adult’s.
  • The growth of your baby’s foot is seasonal, with the fastest growth occurring in the warmer months.
  • By the age of 12, your child’s foot is about 90 percent of it’s adult length.

Anél Lewis