Our feet are our direct lifeline to the environment around us. From the very first wobbly steps—they propel us forward, keep us balanced, inform us of the ground we’re standing on, and gently nudge us to take some rest when needed. Feet grow from the day we are born until we reach our late teens. Unrestricted, our feet will develop as they should, and carry us through life with ease and comfort.
Podiatrists recommend children have their feet examined when they begin to stand at four to six months and every two years, ensuring that any problems can be treated early. For optimal foot development, children should go barefoot whenever possible. However, the ground can harbour dangers such as sharp objects, toxins, and extreme temperatures so we have to use shoes to protect our little ones’ feet.
How do we protect their feet without restricting growth and development?
Children’s feet are different to adult feet, so the important key is to buy high-quality shoes made specifically for children’s feet. To buy better shoes, check the following when you are out and about, and looking to buy:
Check the materials
The fabric and covering that insulates your child’s foot should be soft, breathable and supple enough to mould to your child’s foot.
Use your fingers to feel that there are no protruding pieces of material or seams on the inside that could scratch or irritate the skin. The sole should be slip resistant, flexible, shock absorbent and with a low profile. Unless recommended to you by a health professional, there should be no arch support or other moulding. Bend the sole to get a feel for the flexibility of the overall shoe. Is it flexible enough to allow the feet to move freely? You also want the sole to last and protect your child’s feet, therefore, does it look as though it could crack, or be punctured easily?
Tests conducted in Britain, Germany and Hong Kong regularly find high levels of hazardous chemicals in children’s shoes. These toxins are absorbed through the skin, even when children wear socks. Avoid shoes that promise to be antibacterial or odour fighting. Also, avoid plastic or rubber shoes*, as they often contain levels of phthalates, heavy metals, and hormone disrupters that exceed EU limits. You want the gold standard that is eco-certified leather, or unbleached organic cotton. Otherwise, look for vegetable-tanned, chrome-free leather, and unbleached natural fibres (cotton, linen, etc.). As a general rule, shoes that have been stitched require less glue and, therefore, have lower levels of toxins. Children generally outgrow shoes before they fall apart, but toxicity is one reason why it pays to buy better-made shoes that have been tested.
When in doubt, ask the shopkeeper or manufacturer.
Know your child’s feet
We know children’s feet come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it be a narrow or a wide foot, high or low arches, pronounced or non-existent heels. All of these factors have a bearing on how well the shoe will fit.
A good fit means the foot works the way it should, and can develop in an unrestricted way, preventing foot problems. Make sure you have your child’s feet measured every three to six months. Take note if your child has a narrow or wide foot, and know that this can change over time.
Unfortunately, shoe sizes are not standardised and we see confounding variations from brand to brand—even within a brand. It’s the measurement inside the shoe that matters, whereas it is the outside measurement that is used to determine what size a shoe actually is. For example, if the materials are thick, a size will run small. Good shopkeepers know which shoes run small or large and customer reviews will often mention if a shoe runs true to size.
A great tip is to always shop later in the day to allow the feet to expand. Let your child slip the shoe on, and check that the heel and ankle aren’t slipping out. Next, make sure that there are 15-18 mm of space between the longest toe and the end of the shoe. If you can’t tell, take out the insole, and let your child stand on it. This will show you how much space there is at the end of the shoe, and if there’s enough space for the foot in general. In particular, there should be enough space in the toe box for the foot to spread.
Appreciate good design
The design of a shoe matters for comfort, safety, and durability. Closed shoes should have a toe box that has an additional layer of protection. The additional covering needs to be able to take the hard knocks, for example, if your child decides to use the shoe as a brake when scootering.
Sandals should also preferably have some protection for the toes, to prevent accidents with errant sticks when children are playing. Also, make sure that your child can put on and take off their shoes with ease.
Be Loyal, but not too loyal
If you find a brand that provides an excellent fit and quality and your child enjoyed wearing the shoes—stick with them. The perfect brand might be different for each child as each child has different needs depending on their activity level and foot size. In general, buy the best you can afford to.
And remember, whenever possible let your child go barefoot.
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* A note on plastic and rubber shoes: in a practical sense, they're a necessity, whether it's for playing in creeks, or jumping in muddy puddles. Your best bet is look for shoes that are also sold in Europe because they must be REACH compliant. If you're looking for waterproof shoes, we recommend shoes made of EVA. By design, the manufacturing process for EVA introduces far fewer toxins than for other footwear materials. The most problematic are fire retardants and phthalates. These are restricted and tested for under REACH. For gumboots, look for PVC free, a thick cotton lining, and REACH compliance. If you have any questions, we'd love to hear them at email@example.com.