Being a podiatrist for many years, I am frequently asked the question, Are barefoot shoes or supportive footwear better for my child’s developing feet?”

It is important to begin by clarifying the difference between the two types of footwear.

Barefoot shoes: typically provide minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot, due to their high flexibility, lightweight and low heel structure. They are designed in the absence of motion control and stability devices.

Supportive shoes: the definition is less clear, as shoes vary in their level of support, but typically they influence the movement of the foot, with a firmer heel counter and midsole. They can range significantly in weight, have an adjustable fastening (lace or velcro) and are designed with motion control and stability devices, such as foot orthotics.

So let’s start with your child as a toddler...

When your toddler is learning to walk they receive very important sensory feedback from the soles of their feet.

Encouraging your child to go barefoot indoors on a regular basis helps them to develop balance, coordination and improves their posture, as this allows natural strengthening of the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the foot.

Shoes that are hard and inflexible are not appropriate, as they make walking difficult and uncomfortable for your toddler. Shoes should only be worn for protection outside. The exception to this rule would be where severe biomechanical disorders or foot deformity have occurred. Supportive footwear and bracing would be needed and should be managed by a podiatrist or orthopaedic specialist.

This is why I am a keen supporter of barefoot brands that support healthy foot development in this age group, VIVOBAREFOOT.

Now let’s review the footwear needs of a child who is at school and increasing their sporting activities.

This is where things can get a little tricky as parents sometimes receive conflicting information. Picking the right pair of shoes is imperative for foot health, as the risk of sporting injuries and growth specific injuries, such as Severs Disease (heel pain), can impact adversely on their developing feet.

Factors like management of training loads, appropriate skill development, suitable training environments and sports specific protective wear also need to be considered when consulting with a podiatrist or shoe fitting specialist.

My decision for this is always individualised and based on clinical history, foot posture, muscle strength, mobility, activity levels, tissue stress loads and lower limb biomechanics and gait. If your child is deemed to have adequate foot function they may want to explore the benefits of a more barefoot shoe, with comfort and fit paramount.

Barefoot shoes provide natural and efficient shock absorbing properties for well functioning feet. They are lightweight and flexible to allow more movement in the feet, which can help with proprioception, sensory feedback and muscle strength.

What all parents and children do need to be mindful of when changing into a barefoot shoe is the importance of the transition and wearing in phase, which should be done gradually. The most pronounced difference between a barefoot and supportive shoe is the height of the heel elevation. This can change the workload and pull of the calf, Achilles tendon and plantar fascia, under the sole of the foot. Focusing on stretching and strengthening these structures is very important during this time and can be demonstrated by your podiatrist.

One of the common errors I see is that children should not be regarded as little versions of adults; their feet are constantly developing and adapting. If treatment is required then a modifying improvement plan should be created and adapted according to an individual child’s needs.

For example, your child may have been wearing orthotics due to a developmental issue or injury that has now been resolved, in which case it is best to have a review assessment with your podiatrist as they may not be needed long term.

Hopefully, this has helped clarify a few grey areas when it comes to footwear choice. If you would like to seek a professional opinion about your toddler or child’s healthy feet development you will find me at Contagious Enthusiasm Wellness Centre, 362 Hampton Street, Hampton VIC 3188. Ph: 9502 0650

Yours in health and foot care

Monique Milne

(Sports Podiatrist)