Learning to Walk

Learning to Walk
I have seen the shoes that I wore as an infant, bronzed on a stand, looking like a trophy of the triumph over mobility. They were hard, flat-soled high top, lace-up shoes that look terribly uncomfortable. My mother was told that I had “weak ankles” and needed extra support. (Later she was told that I could not take ballet lessons for the same reason. Turns out that I have a bone deformity in my ankles and wrists that actually would have caused less problems later in life if I had been allowed to build up the muscles in these areas.)

They still had those shoes when my oldest daughter was learning to walk and I actually bought a pair. I quickly discarded them because they seemed to throw her more off-balance than her wobbly little legs were without them.

Now the shoe stores have mini versions of all the adult favorites for our children – from Nike to Reebok. How do we know what shoe is best when our children are learning to walk?

Experts favor none! Instead they encourage parents to allow their children to remain barefoot. Why? The reasons cited are actually quite logical. First, the human foot at birth is nothing like an adult foot. It contains no bones, but consists instead of cartilage. Over a period of years, this cartilage ossifies to become the 28 bones that make up the foot. The process is not complete until the late teens. Considering this formation process, the shoes chosen for not only toddlers, but our children through teen years, should be carefully considered.

Second, allowing your child to walk barefoot gives them direct contact with the ground and a better ability to pick up signals from the “terrain” because they can feel it. Experiments have shown that children who are allowed to walk barefoot look up and forward more than children who are walking with shoes. Podiatrist Tracy Byrne who specializes in podiatry for children states that a barefoot child can feel where they are walking, making them more confident about their ability to maneuver themselves across the ground versus the child with no connection to where they are walking. This child will be looking down to be sure of where he or she steps, resulting in problems with balance and more likely falls.

In fact, Byrne has a checklist of requirements for a “good shoe.” It should have a completely flexible sole; a wide, deep toebox; and anatomically correct last (the mold on which the shoe is built), a closure at the back, and an adjustable closure at the top.

I had to do a lot of thinking about the information I read on this topic. The idea of being able to feel where you are walking, making you more confident about your steps, makes sense to me. Think about tight-rope walkers at the circus. They wear either no shoes or shoes that look like the ballerina-style slippers. They do this to insure that they can feel the rope and are confident about where they step. How often do you see an tight-rope walker look down?

Also, with a toddler’s foot being so flexible and “soft”, it makes sense that the shoes we put them in will “mold” their feet. Think about the practice of Chinese foot-binding. It is preferred to being this practice with the woman as a child because of the flexibility of the foot. They literally mold the foot to the shape they want. Now, I am definitely not saying that making your child wear shoes is like Chinese foot-binding. But it does make you think.

Obviously there are times when our children must wear shoes. After all, even as toddlers, we need to keep their feet warm and protected. Socks are the next best thing for crawlers and toddlers to being barefoot. Also, in situations where your toddler is not going to be doing a lot of walking – going to the mall – you don’t have to worry as much about the type of shoe they are wearing since it is basically just a covering.

However, there are quite a few lines that are producing shoes for crawlers and toddlers that fit the criteria promoted by many pediatricians and child podiatrists. Among these are Froggies and Vivo Barefoot. Bottom line, when you take your child to buy shoes, you should do the following:

• Have the shoes professionally fitted – including foot length and width
• Update the shoe size every few months as children’s feet grow very quickly.
• Be sure the shoes are not too tight. In addition to being uncomfortable, it can alter your child’s gait and cause ingrown toenails, blisters, and bunions.
• Look for a soft, skid-proof sole to allow for normal muscle and arch development and to provide the child with more movement control.
• Get a pair with laces or Velcro so that your child’s foot does not slide around in or out of the shoe.

For me, I always knew barefoot was the best! I never did like shoes. Happy walking!

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