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We were given lots of cute shoes for our son, Carmelo well before he took his first steps. From soft leather slippers adorned with monsters to skateboarder sneakers, sandals and superhero-embossed rubber boots, there were plenty to choose from. But I wasn’t sure if any of them were actually good for his feet.
“Try to always find the best-fitting shoe possible,” says Joseph Stern, former president of the Canadian Podiatric Medical Association. “You don’t have to be overly concerned about the quality of shoes that are only worn very occasionally, but toddlers all need one good pair for everyday wear.”
That one good pair should be sturdy, fitted to your child’s foot at a shoe store so it will support his foot properly and have rubber soles to stop him from tripping. “Each shoe is designed for a specific function,” Stern explains. “For example, sandals are designed to wear to the beach or pool, not to run around in. The bones in the foot are very soft at this age. Wearing badly fitted shoes won’t deform your toddler’s feet, but if his shoes aren’t very supportive, it can advance any abnormalities that his feet may already have, such as flat feet.”
You should take your child for a professional fitting, says Stern, who recognizes that it can seem pricey to buy a good pair of shoes, considering how quickly kids grow out of them (little feet grow about 1.5 mm in length every month between the ages of one and three). “If your child needed glasses, you wouldn’t buy them off the shelf instead of going to an optician,” he says. “A more expensive shoe is going to be made of better materials, and has been designed by a manufacturer who knows about the science of children’s feet so it will better support them.”
Stern says that the right pair of shoes will have a toe-box that’s wide and round or square, to naturally follow the shape of the foot, with adequate room so the toes aren’t squished together. Materials should be breathable—leather or the types of mesh used in running shoes. The shoe should flex at the ball of the foot, but the heel counter at the back should be stiff to hold the shoe upright. Look for a pair that has Velcro fastenings (or laces, if you have a co-operative kid) to ensure a snug fit.
Lots of parents buy second-hand kids’ footwear on neighbourhood Facebook buy-and-sell groups. But the experts warn against doing so. Only pairs for special occasions, which generally don’t get much wear, are OK to pass on to younger siblings. Everyday shoes have formed to a child’s foot in a way that may not give the necessary support to another child, says Stern. What’s more, he says, “fungus, like athlete’s foot, or warts can be carried in all shoes.”
When your child gets fitted for their first pair, it’s about more than just having enough room for their toes. First, the foot is measured for length and width. Next he’ll try the shoe on, then a list of things are checked. “The width, instep, and flex point—where the sole of the shoe is most easily bent—are all important measurements,” says Linda Goulet, president of Panda Shoes, a Canadian children’s footwear retail chain. As for length, given that your child’s likely going to need two to three pairs of shoes each year until growth slows down, it can be tempting to buy shoes a size bigger. Goulet recommends you don’t.
“It’s the same as it would be for adults: Are you going to be comfortable walking in shoes that are too big? No. Plus, if the shoe is too big, the flex point will be in the wrong place and won’t support or protect the foot properly.” Ill-fitting shoes may lead to slips, trips, and falls, which can cause ankle damage. Take your time in the store so you can watch how your child walks in each pair. “If they’re on tippytoes or not walking properly, something’s hurting. Have patience in the process,” says Stern.
While I got my first child properly fitted for shoes when he was a toddler, doing the same for Carmelo was the one task that kept slipping through the cracks of our busy life. He is never happier than when stomping around in his Spider-Man rubber boots, but when he eventually moved from toddling to more sure-footed steps, I took him in to get fitted for a proper pair of shoes—and reserve his boots for puddle jumping.