Surely one of the cutest parts of newborn babies is their feet. They are like little blobs, soft and squishy and yearning to be covered in kisses.
Part of the reason they are so cute is that when they are born these little blobs are made up of a mass of cartilage rather than fully formed bones. Gradually, through childhood and into the late teens the cartilage ossifies and becomes the 28 bones that exist in the adult human foot.
That journey of physical maturation sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? However it is far from simple. There is so much going on in our babies’ and toddlers’ feet that actually help them develop physically, emotionally and even psychologically.
Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the importance of free movement for babies and toddlers and young children, and we can be easily tempted by products — often very cute products — that are created for them.
While I shake my head at the knee pads for toddlers I saw recently in a baby shop, I am often drawn to the adorable little shoes and slippers.
However, as little ones begin to use their feet they are biologically wired to know what to do. Anything that restricts natural movement can delay other invisible developments.
By covering young children’s feet with lookalike adult shoes we can impede incredibly important sensory development. An emergency nurse one told me a disturbing story of a five-year-old girl who had seldom gone barefoot. Apparently this girl was at a family outing and all the children had taken their shoes off to go paddling at the edge of a stream. It was a very hot day and as they were walking across the hot footpath to get to the stream, this girl stopped and stood still. Unfortunately no one really noticed. After she came out of the stream she complained later that her feet were sore and when her mother checked her feet she had massive blisters on her soles.
Unless children are able to experience their senses and work out what they are trying to tell us, they simply don’t develop sensory awareness. That girl had stood on a hot pavement without realising her feet were being burned. The nurse said the burns had gone beyond third-degree and that’s the reason she stopped feeling pain after the initial sensation of burning.
Our feet send messages of discomfort to our brain to warn of sharp things and hot surfaces, however we need practise to discern what those messages are.
Children no longer seem to have the freedom to move and play in bare feet. It seems that parents have picked up the notion from full-day-based child care that children need to have their feet covered at all times.
The soles of our feet are very sensitive and intrinsically wired to our brain. Podiatrist Tracy Byrne, who specialises in podopaediatrics in London, believes that wearing shoes at too young an age can hamper a child’s walking and cerebral development.
She wrote in an article in The Guardian that when toddlers are barefoot they get feedback from the ground and so they keep their heads up more when walking around. That means they don’t need to look down as much, and it’s the looking down that often throws them off balance and causes them to fall.
Allowing children endless opportunities to walk and run barefoot, especially on uneven surfaces, will allow them to connect with the ground — in all its variety — so they can not only develop their physical capacity to move freely in our world, they will also create healthy brains which can function at more optimum levels.
Running with bare feet helps to develop our balance system and this can only be developed through movement. Balance does more than develop posture and motor skills. It also supports centres involved in eye movements, spatial awareness and the executive sense of time and finally it is linked physiologically to biochemical pathways involved in anxiety.
“As your child moves from not walking into walking, and from there, to running and jumping and hopping and skipping, this is not just a physical journey. It is an inward journey as well. The early movement milestones are a journey upward, not just to walking but to the higher parts of your baby’s brain. The better the foundations that are laid now, the stronger will be the brain grows from these foundations.” — Jo Jackson King, Raising the Best Possible Child (2010).
The main reason for covering feet in young children should be simply to keep them warm. Anything that inhibits toddlers from crawling, which is what toddler shoes tend to do, can cause problems later in life.
So it’s simple. Pop on those cute little shoes, slippers and miniature adult footwear for photo moments and use socks to keep those cute little toes warm but then let’s kick them both off and allow our children to do what they have done since time began — be barefoot and free.