Is Going Barefoot Healthier for Kids?

There are some pros and cons to letting kids run around barefoot.
Elizabethsalleebauer / RooM / Getty Images

Admit it—you might give the side-eye to a parent whose child is running about without any protection on his feet. After all, what if he steps on a rock or, worse, a piece of glass?

Before you pass too much judgment on that parent, however, take into consideration the potential benefits (or consequences) of children regularly going shoeless.

The Barefoot vs. Shoes Debate

As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of debate out there about whether it’s best for feet (children’s or adult’s) to be protected in a pair of shoes or let them go naked.

A few years back, minimalist shoe brand Vibrams made a splash with its FiveFinger running shoes that claimed to mimic running barefoot, while also providing myriad health benefits for the body. According to the company’s marketing materials, the shoes create stronger foot and leg muscles, increase the lower-body’s range of motion and improve posture. However, in 2014, the company settled a class-action lawsuit, brought by a customer who said that the shoes didn’t live up to these claims.

A position statement from the American Podiatric Medical Association, though, in commenting on the lawsuit, didn’t completely negate potential benefits to barefoot or minimalist running. It stated, “Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection, which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds and increased stress on the lower extremities.”

A 2017 study published in Gait & Posture found there were pros and cons to letting kids run barefoot. The researchers found that wearing footwear increased the impact ground reaction forces, which may pose certain injury risks. But, barefoot and minimalist running increased tibial internal rotation, which has been associated with specific types of injuries.

Taking this into consideration, it’s up to the parent (and, if consulted, the child’s pediatrician) to weigh the risks and benefits to determine if they would like to encourage their children to go shoeless.

Baby’s First Shoes

Despite how irresistible tiny little sneakers might be, there’s no scientific evidence that concludes that infants need to wear shoes once they’ve learned how to walk. In fact, the opposite might be true—going shoeless helps a just-toddling toddler improve her balance, strength, and coordination.

The only measure that needs to be taken into consideration is the temperature of the surface on which the child is walking. If it’s cold, something with a thin sole, such as booties or sock, will protect their feet from chilly surfaces. Otherwise, let the new walker explore the texture and sensation of various surfaces, whether it’s grass, tile, sand, or shag carpeting.

The Later Years

In 2007, researchers in South Africa compared the health of a person’s feet to those of a 2,000-year-old skeleton’s. They concluded that people had healthier feet before they began wearing shoes regularly. The lead researcher publicly commented that he believes that scientific evidence supports the claim that commercially available footwear is not healthy for the feet.

But, of course, these studies are talking about fully grown adults. What about children? Proponents generally claim that children’s shoes change the growing foot, forcing it to conform to the shape of the shoe. Instead, they say, feet should be allowed to develop naturally—and that means being free from constraints.

The Issues With Shoes

The biggest issue with children’s shoes is their stiffness. A child likes to run free, climb trees, do cartwheels. There’s very little bend or give in the sole of a child’s shoe.

The lack of direct contact with the surface on which she’s running or climbing, too, can lead to problems—not being able to connect with the traction of a tree branch, for example, which can lead to the child slipping and falling.

Poorly fitting shoes and improper use can also cause ingrown toenails and structural problems in a kid’s foot—for example, athlete’s foot.

Take Stock of the Environment

Even the biggest proponents of going barefoot understand that there are some places where kids probably should wear shoes, though it’s worth noting that the more a child goes barefoot, the more natural protection their feet will have from hazards—though, probably not nails or screws.

Here are some things to keep in mind when considering whether to let your child go barefoot:

  • Insist your child wear shoes when walking around pools, wet grass, or in locker rooms. Warm, moist environments can promote the growth of fungi, viruses, and bacteria.
  • Keep your child’s tetanus shots up to date. Stepping on a sharp object could cause your child to contract tetanus.
  • Insist your child wear sunscreen on her feet. Feet can get sunburned just like any other part of the body—it’s important to keep feet protected from the sun.
  • Keep the temperature in mind. On a warm day, sand or asphalt may cause serious burns. If it’s a bright sunny day, you might want to insist your child wear shoes.
  • See the doctor if your child gets a puncture wound. Puncture wounds on the feet can be serious, so make sure to contact the pediatrician if your child steps on a sharp object.
  • Insist on shoes in unsafe situations. Don’t let your child walk around barefoot in a potentially dangerous situation—like near a campfire. And use common sense when your child performs activities that could hurt his feet—like mowing the lawn.
  • Take the environment into consideration. Think about potential problems with insects, parasites, snakes, or other critters that may come in contact with your child’s feet. Certainly, some areas are safer than others when it comes to running around barefoot.

A parent will know best whether it’s a good idea for her kids to run around without shoes on. However, it might be good practice to implement a no-shoes household. Not only will your children’s feet get the open-air time needed to develop safely, but it will also track less dirt into the home—it’s a win-win situation for your family’s health.

Sources:

Barefoot Running | Position Statements. American Academy of Podiatry. Published May 8, 2014.

McCue M. Vibram Agrees to Settle Class Action Lawsuit. Runners World. Published December 14, 2016.

Roman PAL, Balboa FR, Pinillos FG. Foot strike pattern in children during shod-unshod runningGait & Posture. 2017;58:220-222.

Zipfel B, Berger LR. Shod versus unshod: The emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans? The Foot. 2007;17(4):205-2013.

Continue Reading