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Barefoot shoes... what does that even mean?

Have you heard of barefoot shoes? Have you bought them for yourself or your little one? Perhaps you’ve been thinking about it but just not sure whether it’s the right thing for their feet? After all, aren’t shoes needed to support the feet?



There is so much conflicting advice available, it’s difficult to decide what’s right! You’ll find much has been written about what children should or shouldn’t wear on their feet and the benefits of barefoot walking. In recent years there have been several new shoe brands and styles promoting themselves as barefoot, but what does that actually mean?


Put simply, barefoot shoes allow the foot and ankle to move and function as naturally as possible, mimicking barefoot walking. They protect the feet, but don’t restrict or inhibit their movement.


Leonardo da Vinci said, “the human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” Feet have evolved perfectly to perform their role, working in sync with the rest of our body, and do not need shoes to function properly. The primary purpose of shoes should be to protect the feet, enabling them to move freely and safely. In modern times, fashion has come to dictate the shape of shoes, whereas the barefoot ethos starts by putting the foot first and using this as the basis of design. That makes a lot of sense!


As with many things, there is a sliding scale of how ‘barefoot’ the shoes that bear this label actually are and while many children’s shoes do not promote themselves as being barefoot, those that are designed specifically for young, growing feet often have barefoot characteristics. So my advice is not to get too hung up on a label, here’s what to look out for.


Zero drop: meaning the shoe is completely flat internally, with no rise at the heel and no molding or arch support. The foot behaves as it would on a flat surface. Even a slight rise at the heel shifts our weight forward on to the forefoot and changes the alignment of our body. The arches of our feet act as a springboard, if something’s directly underneath the arch it won’t function effectively.


Thin sole: there are more nerve endings in the soles of our feet than anywhere else on our body and they are constantly feeding information to our brain about our environment, guiding and adapting our movements and balance. This sensory data is particularly crucial during the first few years of walking. The thicker the sole, the more this flow of vital information will be interrupted.


Flexible and lightweight: this applies to the whole shoe. Both the sole and the upper should flex and move with the foot and ankle. Putting a heavy, rigid shoe on a child makes it more difficult for them to lift their feet and inhibits their movement. They should barely notice the shoes are on their feet and it should not look like they’re stomping around (unless they’re doing it on purpose!)


Wide toe box: children’s feet are not miniature versions of adult’s feet. They’re more triangular in shape, wider at the toes, narrower at the heel, often with a protective layer of fat. The shape of their shoes should reflect this, with plenty of wriggle room around the toes. The principle of a wide toe box is the same in barefoot shoes for adults, allowing the toes to flex and spread, providing a more stable base.


Why would you choose shoes with these characteristics?


The more structure and support provided by shoes, the less the feet need to work, which over time will lead to weakened muscles and foot function. Feet will become lazy and reliant on shoes to function comfortably.


To allow your little one’s gorgeous feet to grow and develop natural muscle strength and bone structure, and develop good body posture, their feet need to be able to spread, spring and move freely. But barefoot or not, the shoes must fit the feet well, if they are too big or too loose, the feet will spend their time working to keep the shoes on, not moving naturally!


Ill-fitting, rigid or inappropriate shoes can significantly affect how the foot develops. The bones in children’s feet begin as soft cartilage, which gradually develops into bone over a number of years. The process of these bones forming, fusing and fully hardening in not complete until the late teens/early twenties. If a shoe exerts pressure or restricts a particular area of the foot, it will influence how the bone and muscle structure develops.


However, it’s important to remember that every pair of feet is unique. Each pair has a unique shape and will move and function differently. Children’s feet will change shape as they grow and there are reasons some children might require more support from their shoes.


A qualified shoe fitter will take all of these factors into consideration. They’ll take time to select the shoes most suited to your child’s foot shape and stage of development, and to answer any questions you have. They’ll watch your little one move around and do several checks to be sure the shoes will support the healthy development of their feet.


What about me? Should I be wearing barefoot shoes?


It’s very much a personal choice but if you’re thinking of transitioning to barefoot as an adult, there’s lots of advice available about how to do it gradually. Your feet are likely to have adapted to the shape and support of modern shoe styles, moving directly to barefoot shoes could come as a bit of a shock!


Start with exercises to strengthen the muscles of your feet, then begin to wear barefoot shoes for short periods of time, gradually increasing until you can wear them comfortably all the time. Taken slowly, transitioning to barefoot shoes can result in stronger, healthier feet and many people report relief from long-term foot pain.


If you have any questions, please get in touch at sam@ceceandme.co.uk and I'll do my best to help.


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