With so much conflicting advice on appropriate shoes for children, it is no wonder that parents are often confused about what is best. Ideal footwear is often hard to find, particularly if you don’t know what you should be looking for. As your child gets older, finding the perfect shoe can also be a matter of compromise as fashion and peer group pressure can begin to influence choices.

Shoes are selected for 3 main purposes – protection, correction and fashion. Knowing when to focus on one over the other can be difficult, but hopefully we can shed some light on the topic!

It is important to keep in mind that a child’s foot is not simply a miniature version of an adult’s foot. In early development, a child’s foot is widest across the toes. Most of a child’s developing foot is composed of cartilage which is gradually replaced by bone as the child matures. Cartilage is malleable, therefore if the cartilage in the foot is deformed by poorly shaped or rigid shoes, the bone will also take on the deformed shape. Inflexible, badly shaped footwear can be potentially harmful as they restrict the natural movement and development of the foot, and can lead to pain and injury later in life. Therefore, it is imperative that a child’s shoes allow enough room for natural growth until the bones of the foot mature.

Most children will begin to walk between 12 and 18 months of age. When babies are learning to walk, bare feet are best as it allows them to have a greater sense of proprioception by allowing them to feel what they are touching with their feet.

Shoes for children mainly serve a protective function, as well as to offer grip and ensure comfort when walking on different surfaces. Shock-absorbing soles can also help to protect the child from overuse injuries.

In physically normal children, corrective shoes are rarely required. The most common concern in relation to children and their feet is the appearance of flat or pronated feet. Almost all children under the age of 18 months have flat feet, usually due to presence of a fat pad under the arch of the foot. The longitudinal arch of the foot generally develops in a child between 4 and 6 years of age. Flat feet is a common finding in most children under the age of 6 and is a normal developmental variation.

However, if your child is complaining of pain in their feet or lower legs, some correction may be required therefore it is recommended that you seek the advice of a physiotherapist or podiatrist for thorough assessment.

Most of a child’s developing foot is composed of cartilage which is gradually replaced by bone as the child matures.

With all that being said, what do we need to look for in a pair of shoes?

When selecting a pair of shoes, you should also ask yourself the following questions:

  • how does the shoe fit?
  • how is the shoe made?
  • is the type of shoe appropriate for your child’s age?

How does the shoe fit?

  • pay attention to the shoe’s length, width and depth – shoes must fit snugly at the heel, preventing forward movement while walking
  • the shoe should also allow enough room for the toes, leaving about 1.25cm (a thumb width) between the longest toe and the tip of the shoe – this should be measured standing up
  • all shoes and sandals should also have a 5mm space between the rim of the footwear and all toes (this can be measured but pinching the shoes while the child is standing – there should be a small crease in the material when you do this)

How is the shoe made?

  • the sole of the foot should be firm but lightweight and flexible – a good test is to check that the sole can bend near the toes
  • the front part of the shoe should be wider than the heel to match the natural shape of a child’s foot
  • shoes should have a firm heel cup (the shoe should have a solid back) – you should not be able to squeeze the sides of the back of the shoe together
  • the upper part should be made of a breathable material such as leather or canvas – children’s feet perspire heavily, therefore the upper part of the shoe should allow the foot to breathe

Is the shoe age appropriate?

Pre-Walking Shoes:

  • shoes are not necessary in this age group – they are generally used mainly to keep feet warm in this age group
  • shoes should be flexible rather than providing rigid support
  • important that shoes are shaped like the child’s foot
  • in protected environments, such as indoors the child can go barefoot

Toddler Shoes:

  • shoes should be breathable (avoid synthetic materials) – feet perspire a great amount in children of this age group
  • a high-top shoe will stay on the foot better
  • choose shoes with laces as they can be more easily adjusted
  • sole of the shoe should be smooth – this will cause less friction on the floor and therefore is less likely to contribute to your child falling

School-Age Children’s Shoes:

  • fashion becomes more of a factor
  • shoes should be flexible and well ventilated
  • allow plenty of room for growth
  • be aware of any developing calluses, sores or other foot problems

Remember that expensive footwear is not always better. Children outgrow their shoes very quickly, therefore looking for the features listed above is more important than spending huge amounts of money on a pair of shoes.  Shoes should also be comfortable from the start. If new shoes need to be worn in, they are either poorly designed or not appropriately fitted for your child’s foot.

If you are concerned about your child’s feet, or they are complaining of pain in their feet and/or lower legs, it is important you seek the advice of a physiotherapist or podiatrist. They can also provide advice and assistance on appropriate footwear specific to your child’s needs.