The bare facts
They may be tiny, but each of your child's feet house 26 pliable bones, plus muscles and tendons. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), unrestricted feet are free to develop properly. Therefore, the best shoes for ensuring strong, problem-free feet are no shoes at all. As if we really want to cover up those little piggies anyway!
However, while socks or "au natural" are best indoors, your child's feet do need better protection outside. The APMA warns that cuts, warts and an increased risk of sprains and fractures are possible when bare feet are subjected to dirty sidewalks and rough or uneven surfaces.
Dr David A Podeszwa, an attending orthopedic surgeon at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, says, "The goal (of shoes) is to protect the foot. Under normal circumstances, shoes are not used to help the foot or ankle to develop."
With all of this in mind, you can see why it's critical to choose shoes that protect feet while being as unobtrusive as possible. There are many factors that go into such a decision. Let's begin with shoe construction.
The quality of your child's shoes should be an issue long before she is old enough to plead for top-of-the-line (and bottom of the purse) designer sneakers. Once you find a shoe that appeals to you, or to your child, hold it in your hand and examine it. Here are tell-tale features to look for from the APMA and the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society (AOFAS):
Once you've found a good quality shoe, your job is only half complete. Little feet vary so much in shape that size is hardly the only provision for a good fit. As-a-matter-of-fact, the size your child takes may fluctuate according to the style or brand of shoe in question. How far off can a measurement be?
"Incredibly, a lot depends on where the style was manufactured," says Jeanne Mullein, manager of Gail's Stride Rite in Westwood, New Jersey. She explains that shoe molds, called "lasts," are unique between manufacturers. One brand's size 3 could be another's size 4. Therefore, it's important to have the help of a knowledgeable salesperson when matching a shoe with your child's distinctive foot.
While the criteria for a match between shoe and foot may sound a bit involved, it really isn't as bad as trying to pair up Cinderella with her glass slipper. Just keep the following tips in mind for a good fit:
Take measurements in the afternoon. Feet will have swollen to their largest length and width from a day of activity. Have your child stand for a proper reading. It's perfectly normal for one foot to be slightly larger. Just work with the greater measurement.
Give feet room for growth. "Good fitting shoes will leave appropriate room in the toe box and will not slip around the heel when the child is walking," says Dr Podeszwa. A good rule of thumb--literally is to leave the width of a thumb (about 1/2") between the tip of the big toe and the front of the shoe.
Follow the shape of the foot. "You've got to be careful that you're not putting pressure on a foot anywhere in the shoe," Mullein advises. For example, if the wearer has chubby ankles, you want to be sure the topline of the shoe isn't too narrow. However, too wide a topline won't give enough support to a narrower ankle. Additionally, if the topline is too high, it can cause blisters or hold the ankle too rigidly, which could impede ankle strength. If the topline is too low, the heel may slip out.
Adhere to this cardinal rule: Don't buy shoes that need "breaking in." Shoes should be comfortable from the beginning. Since a new walker won't be able to verbalize that assessment have your child walk around in the shoes for longer than a few minutes. Then, check the foot to make certain there are no irritation marks on the feet.
Make sure the shoe doesn't weigh down the wearer. "Too heavy a shoe makes them Frankenstein. The pattern of movement can't develop normally," says Mullein.
Don't let grandma (or anyone else) make a federal case out of flat feet. Special arches in a young child's shoes are not necessary. "It is normal for all infants and toddlers to have flat feet," insists Dr Podeszwa. "The arch develops throughout the first decade of life. Parents need reassurance that this is not a problem."
When it comes to the price of a shoe, Dr Podeszwa says, "Cost should not be a factor. Shoes are very individual and a more expensive shoe may be better for one child but not for another."
Still, even if your child's feet are not "expensive," the rate at which they grow may rattle your budget sense. According to the AOFAS, you can look forward to growth of more than one-half a foot size every two months for toddlers under 16 months of age, every three months from 16 to 24 months old, and every four months until age three. Thereafter, you get grace periods of four to six months.
Clearly, shoes are one of the pricier aspects of raising children. It's no wonder the thought of reusing an older child's shoes occurs to many parents. Is this a big "no-no?" It depends on who you ask. While some shoe and foot professionals frown upon hand-me-downs, others feel used shoes are okay if they are thoroughly examined for excessive wear and tear.
"Whether the shoe is new or a hand-me-down should not make a difference as long as the shoe is comfortable and fits well," Dr Podeszwa says.
So how do you know when it's time to tap the shoe budget again? Ask the following questions:
While it may be tempting to choose a shoe based on price or style alone, the emphasis on a proper fit cannot be stressed enough. Mullein has actually declined to sell ill-fitting shoes to parents who cast aside a proper fit in favor of a cool new style. Her motto for providing the right shoes sums up the importance of giving your child's unique feet special consideration: "The feet are the foundation. If the foundation is not stable, the building will not be secure."