Ticking Time Bomb: Children’s Shoes Cause Health Problems Later in Life for Adults.

By April 30, 2015 May 12th, 2015 Lifestyle & Stress

Twenty years ago, a review of shoes and gait in the journal Pediatrics outlined some key factors that affect children’s feet. Pediatric orthopedist Lynn Staheli, M.D., from the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, Seattle, Washington, listed these important points:

  • Optimum foot development occurs in the barefoot environment.
  • Stiff and compressive footwear may cause deformity, weakness, and loss of mobility.
  • The term “corrective shoes” is a misnomer.
  • Shoe selection for children should be based on the barefoot model.
  • Physicians should avoid and discourage the commercialization and “media” obsession with faddish footwear.
  • Merchandising of the “corrective shoe” is harmful to the child, expensive for the family, and a discredit to the medical profession.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the footwear industry is the harm it deliberately inflicts upon unsuspecting children by encouraging them to wear bad shoes. Between the twin forces of television and parental encouragement, little Johnny or Jill are defenseless. In particular, the potential damage to the young developing body and brain. And, this could be a primary cause of physical imbalances, injury and disability as adults.

It was evident from Dr. Staheli’s article that shoe companies in 1991 were already heavily marketing unhealthy children’s shoes, playing on the parent’s emotions and those of older children. Today, shoe companies continue to use clever million-dollar advertising campaigns to encourage kids to ask for, and parents to buy, harmful shoes. And it’s obviously successful. The U.S. children’s footwear industry, which includes shoes for kids up to 16 years of age, generates over $5 billion annually, where products are made for cuteness and style rather than function.

What’s the best shoe for your child? None—barefoot is best and nothing comes close. Children should be barefoot, most, if not all the time. This provides the optimal stimulation of the foot by the ground, which helps train the brain for proper gait and other natural movements that children require from the start.

When a shoe becomes absolutely necessary, Dr. Staheli says it should be lightweight, flexible, shaped more or less quadrangularly, and should not have arch supports and stiff sides. She says that pediatric orthopedists strongly oppose “corrective” or “orthopedic” shoes for straightening foot and leg deformities like flat feet, pigeon toes, knock-knees, or bowlegs, claiming there’s no evidence that these so-called therapeutic shoes are effective. Instead most of the supposed deformities in children naturally correct themselves. How you might ask?

Being barefoot is the best way for that to happen. Most healthcare professionals who properly understand a child’s body mechanics know this. (Yet there are many “experts” who recommend the regular use of shoes for young children, but they are usually aligned with the shoe industry or companies making orthotics and other corrective devices.)

Any shoe has the potential to seriously disturb the gait of a young child. His or her sensitive feet sense footwear much more than the adult foot. Even relatively minor pressure on a child’s foot from a shoe can begin deforming it, leading to a permanent problem.

During the first year following the acquisition of independent walking, most of the child’s gait activity, in particular, the neurological memories—the communication between brain and body—becomes well established. During this time, if the feet are not allowed to develop well, gait and balance disorders begin to occur. In many children, these irregularities are often subtle (the “clumsy kid”) while others more serious such as increased vulnerability to physical injury and various neurological imbalances anywhere in the body, including those associated with eye movement.

The full development of a child’s balance and compensatory mechanisms, and overall gait mechanics, takes years to mature. While the first five years of life are most delicate, neuromuscular interference from footwear can occur at any and every stage along the way into early adulthood. This can lead to more serious and chronic physical imbalances later in life, such as a running injury or back pain, and even amplify the stress caused by imperfect shoes.

Earlier this year, Caleb Wegener, Ph.D., and colleagues from the University of Sydney, Australia, reviewed the problems associated with a variety of different shoes worn by children for walking and running. Their study, published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, states that, “Shoes affect the gait of children. With shoes, children walk faster by taking longer steps with greater ankle and knee motion and increased tibialis anterior activity. Shoes reduce foot motion and increase the support phases of the gait cycle. During running, shoes reduce swing phase leg speed, attenuate some shock and encourage a rearfoot strike pattern.” In short, these are some of the specific items that are a recipe for physical and neurological disaster, and the start of a process of chronic injury and disability that could last a lifetime.

These researchers noted Dr. Staheli’s 20-year old suggestion that shoe design should be based on the barefoot model. But some of the shoes they tested were designed on these principles and still caused gait irregularities in children.

The researchers also state that, “Further attention could also be paid to reducing the weight of shoes which may be responsible for some of the [abnormal] changes found in children’s walking and running gait.” (It’s interested that this type of “free” information is available to shoe manufacturers but may never be utilized—instead, they test their shoes on machines, not real people.)

Unimpeded, a healthy barefoot child’s gait is essentially perfect.

Among the untold problems that wearing shoes can impose in the developing child is the impact on the brain. From a baby’s very first delicate steps, each walking and running gait pattern significantly influences brain development. These actions affect lifelong patterns in the nervous system, even beyond the gait and balance mechanisms—they include postural habits, the ability to compensate to physical stresses, and the growth of muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and other tissues. Normally, with each muscle contraction and relaxation, and every joint movement, important neurological patterns are created by the brain, just like with any memory. Shoes distort this process, and instead, the brain learns and designs irregular patterns of movement throughout the body.

In addition, other areas of the brain can be impaired. Normally, during early development in children, all the important neurological input from body movements trigger increased blood flow throughout the brain. This brings in oxygen and many other necessary nutrients to promote growth and development in areas that include learning, speech, and memory. Without the natural muscle contraction in the feet, for example, especially in the very small immature muscles that move the toes, impairment from wearing thick, oversupported modern shoes can reduce the brain maturing process.

In children plagued with posture- and gait-related problems, avoiding wearing shoes is even more important. This can help stimulate the above-mentioned neurological functions, which can, in itself, be very therapeutic. Rather than attempting the use of “corrective” shoes and related devices, such as inserts or braces, finding and correcting the causes, such as neuromuscular imbalance, is important.

Many physical ailments in adults could begin at this young age. Think about all the physical problems you’ve had in your life—it’s possible that many began during development of the important brain-body mechanisms due to significant interference by shoes.

It seems silly to even be discussing the issue of children’s shoes. Most people don’t question the fact that eating junk food is bad for kids, or smoking cigarettes. The level of brain and body stress from wearing bad shoes can be just as damaging. The most logical, effective, and healthiest way for children to develop their whole body is by being barefoot.


  • Roland says:

    This is a very misleading web site. The assumptions that lead to the broad-based recommendations do not take into consideration the individual needs of each child. Especially in the case of deformities or tendencies toward deformities, the child needs to be evaluated by a professional who can make recommendations based upon the individual child’s needs. Many deformities, when left untreated, will lead to severe problems later in life. The blanket assertion that all children are better off not wearing shoes or letting nature take it’s course is poor logic and ill-advised. This is not to say that this would be the correct course of action in many cases. This simply mans that each child should be treated individually based upon their individual needs and conditions.

    • Roland – of course you should take into consideration the needs of every child. But that’s not what we are arguing.

      The blanket assertion that we are contesting is the idea that all children “just go” in shoes, and that it makes sense for parents to take that step blindly. Historically, shoes were not introduced because of biomechanics; sandals were first introduced as a way to protect the sole of the foot from the ground, and covered shoes were first introduced to protect the feet against being stepped on by beasts of burden. The biomechanic implications of deviating from the standard of a bare foot were never considered.

      Because of this, up until you go to an expert to figure out the child’s individual needs and conditions, it makes less sense to keep them in shoes than it does to stay barefoot (unless you have concerns over protecting the foot, of course. But these are NOT biomechanical concerns and do NOT fit into the argument of addressing deformities). In other words, our argument is that you should need as good of a reason to choose specific shoes over being barefoot as you should for choosing specific orthotics over being barefoot.

  • Nye says:

    I just would like to know if correcting a problem such as pronation of the feet in children is possible with or without shoes. I have let my kids be barefoot since birth and still my oldest has pronation. Flat feet. How do you correct this if orthotics are discouraged I’m wondering so I can help him?

    • Mizzie says:

      Most baby’s have flat looking feet and some degree of pronation, but after a few years of unimpeded walking they tend to straighten out. Depending on where you live, you might want to take him for daily half hour barefoot walks by the beach or some other sandy surface to strengthen the foot muscles.

    • Miriam says:

      Hi –

      We Europeans wear leather made, good arch and heel supportive shoes from baby to teen size. We end up with well formed feet and posture. Shoes made in Europe are simply the best for small growing and developing feet. You have generations of Italians, Dutch, German, Polish, French people that grew up on those shoes and their feet and posture are perfect. I was a child that was born and raised in Europe and we wore supportive shoes at all times. Barefoot only at the beach or on sand. Our shoes are always supportive and orthopedic. Orthopedic it means it has all the supportive features inside the shoes. We do not wear cheap shoes from China. They are the worst shoes that you can put on your child. They destroy kids feet – literally and causing ankle pronation, pigeon toes and flat feet (although 5% of kids have that genetic) but kids get flat feet from cheap shoes as well. Try shoes from Europe, yes they are like 180 degree turn from shoes that are sold in USA. In Europe no store sells cheap, none orthopedic shoes only locally made European shoes (we trade among the countries products, shoes included) and they always made outof best leathers and have proper support. Once child wears such shoes their ankles, posture and body gait improves and straightens. We have seen children locally with ankles literally touching the floor. Sorry how on Earth would you treat that? It will never improve on its own since whole body is carried by feet. If feet are collapsing and have no support how would that improve? You can only do that with high top shoes, sandals, sneakers that are European made. Our orthopedic doctors in Europe will be literally shocked by the theory you posed here. Tell that to Europeans living in Europe who put only best shoes on their kids that “shoes does not matter for a child”. Yes, shoes matter greatly – that is why we never, ever put cheap shoes on any child. Only supportive shoes and we end up with perfect feet, perfect posture as an adult. We have generations of adults who been wearing those shoes since 1950 just about after the war. I am a child of who grew up on those shoes back in 1980 and my posture and feet is perfect. My son wore those shoes as a baby here in USA and he is 18 now, and his feet are perfect. Also, we in Europe do not have a business of orthodics like it is in USA. There is no need for it. Kids start with good supportive shoes and continue till teen years and have well formed feet. There is no pronation, no pigeon toes and deformed feet. It is formed with supportive shoes. All Europeans living in USA (those that grew up there as children) never by garbage shoes made in China. Since they know that they will destroy their feet. Also, I like to add that we pay great money for good fitted, leather and supportive shoes. They are not cheap. Pair of shoes would run like 90-120 Euro. Shoes for kids are not vieved as fashion statement, but rather as medical, developmental need. Just imagine child is pigeon toed as an adult what you think happens to his body gait. It shifts causing pain in the feet, knees, back, and posture. By the time person is 30 years old it has pain in their feet. That is not normal. You can avoid such problems with good shoes, they have to be worn from baby to teen. Problem is that in USA parents like to spent peanuts on kids shoes since they claim that they outgrown them too quickly. We in Europe buy 2 pairs as season (season 6 months) but we pay money for the shoes. $100 each at least. We never ever buy shoes for $20-50. Cheap price means cheap leather, not orthopedic and not measured properly. In Europe every company that manufactures the shoes is regulated and required to make them locally to be supportive and well fitted. They charge money for them of course. My son had Italian and Spanish made shoes for example and when he was a baby and I paid 18 years ago about 100 Europe per pair on average or I got them online from stores that sell European shoes only for kids. I am not promoting anything here but those people import shoes for kids from Europe and they are the best. http://www.kingashoes.com. They have been doing it for 17 years and they know what they selling. They are Europeans as well. I got many shoes from my son from them, they sell only shoes from Europe, not garbage from China.

  • I thought it was interesting that optimum foot development occurs in a barefoot environment. My family has genetically flat feet, so I’m worried about my children having them as well. How are way I can check for flat feet?

  • Deja says:

    I agree with you. My 2 and 4 year still wear soft soles or go bare foot, but in the winter months what would you suggest

    • Reinard says:

      If they have to walk in snow, probably a flexible soled light moccasin boot with lots of faux fur insulation. Water shoes are great, but aren’t so good at keeping feet warm!

  • Reinard says:

    I agree barefoot is best for kids in temperate climates. I find it ironic that a society which has more means of transportation than any other era in history also has the strongest stigma against letting its children go barefoot. Back in the 1890’s children were allowed to go barefoot all summer, and even all year in some places like Hawaii and Southern California. Going barefoot also contributes to keeping the kids’ feet cleaner – after every backyard excursion, just plunk them into the bubble bath, and they will be good as new. Quite tickleable. (and edible, may I add!)
    No more fine silt turning white socks into a permanent grey. Human skin is more resilient and cleanable than the best fabric made by man.
    The best thing parents could do for their child’s feet is to take off the shoes and socks, donate them, and let them run free 24/7.

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