What Shoes Are Best for Little Feet? A Physical Therapist Weighs In

  • Copy By: Mary Noreen Cheng, PT, DPT
  • Feature Image By: @striderite

Seeing just about anything in miniature form instantly makes that thing infinitely cuter. And seeing shoes shrunk down to the size for a 6-month-old takes on a whole different level of cute. But while walking through the displays of shoe wear for children can be such a fun experience, it can also be overwhelming for a parent trying to decide the best shoe for his or her child.

As a pediatric physical therapist, I often advise parents on shoe wear for their children. Here are six tips for buying shoe wear across your kids’ childhood. A few brands and examples are provided for your reference, but by no means is this an exhaustive list – there are tons of great options out there. Knowing what you are looking for will definitely help you figure out what is best for your child at their stage of development.

 

1. From infants to adults: barefoot is best

Unless shoes are needed for safety, there is no need for your child to wear shoes.

When walking inside the home or walking outside in the grass or sand, your child is best barefoot. Your child’s foot has countless muscles that are working to develop a strong arch and overall strength, and these muscles develop and strengthen by walking and playing barefoot. For an infant unable to walk, there is no need for shoe wear.

If you watch your infant rolling, scooting, and crawling all over the floor, you’ll notice how his or her feet are hardly ever stationary – all of those movements are working to strengthen your child’s foot. Putting a child into a shoe too early limits those movements and opportunities to strengthen his or her foot musculature. If you are concerned about the cleanliness of grass or sand, try to find something without structure, just to provide a barrier between the surface and your child’s foot. 

 

2. Toddler age: look for a firm, hard sole

When your new walker is ready to explore the world and needs shoes to protect his or her feet on the sidewalk or playground, look for a shoe with a firm, hard sole. If you can easily fold the shoe in half, that shoe does not have enough stability for your new walker. New walkers don’t yet have the heel strike and toe-off that adult walkers have, and in fact, we don’t want them to have that adult walking pattern until around 7 years of age.

So up until then, we want firm, hard soles that don’t rock them forward onto their toes. When looking for a shoe, you should look for something that has full contact with the ground from back to front. And you should avoid shoes that have a curved lip at the back or front of the shoe, as these are made more for an adult walking pattern, which encourages that heel strike and toe-off that toddlers do not yet have. 

 

3. School-age: avoid shoes that they’ll “grow into”

As your child continues to grow and develops more of their adult walking pattern, chances are that your child will begin to develop his or her own style and preferences. It will likely be more difficult to choose exactly what you want for your child, but there are fewer things to avoid for this age group.

For the school-aged child, stability is still important. So, similar to toddler-aged shoe wear, if you can fold the shoe in half, it is not offering enough support. On the opposite end of the spectrum, too much stability can cause pain. If the arch is really built up or if the shoe doesn’t allow for enough flexibility, it may end up causing pain.

Look for a shoe that your child will, most importantly, wear, and then look for something that’s comfortable with enough support. Lastly, try to avoid something that they’ll “grow into.” When a shoe is too big, it can lead to tripping and excessive use of muscles to grip into the shoe trying to find stability. It’s best to always buy the correct fit.

 

4. High school-aged and beyond: consult a running store 

Once the foot is finally finished growing, it’s time to start thinking about a shoe that’s built for a person’s individual needs. At this stage of the game, the shoes will likely be a little more expensive, so it’s important to find something that works for every individual.

I often recommend finding a nearby running store where someone is qualified to look at your child’s foot and let you know what you need in a shoe. Most running specific stores will let you try the shoes for a couple of weeks, and if they don’t work for you, you can return them. Not all stores offer this benefit, so be sure to ask before you buy.

Running stores can also advise on over the counter insoles as well. The possibilities here are endless, and by consulting with a running store, you’ll find a shoe that’s most suited for your now teenager’s specific needs.

 

5. Sandals 

During the hot summer months, no one wants to wear sweaty tennis shoes or gym shoes. When looking for sandals, try to avoid things like flip flops or shoes with little structure.

Instead, look for something that continues to have stability and a secure strap in the back to hold them in place. When the sandal is too loose, it can again lead to excessive use of the foot musculature as your child’s foot searches for stability. 

 

6. Shoes made for braces

As a pediatric physical therapist, we are often asked for advice on shoes that will fit braces. If your child has braces that are difficult to fit into specific shoes, here are some brands to try: Billy, Nike (specifically the FlyEase), Plae, and Cat and Jack at Target, which recently released a new line. 

 

When to seek additional advice: If your child complains of foot pain or has persistent tripping regardless of the type of shoe, it may be time to speak with your doctor. There are a lot of different reasons that feet can hurt and a child can trip, and some of the reasons can be addressed in physical therapy.

If your doctor recommends physical therapy, you can expect more individualized shoe wear recommendations in addition to exercises for stretches and strengthening that you can do in the home. Some foot pain and tripping can also be addressed in orthotics, and your doctor will be able to advise on this as well. At an orthotics appointment, the individual foot will be assessed, and specific recommendations on inserts or additionally bracing can be offered. 

 

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