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By Kacie Flegal, DC

How keeping little feet in the buff helps babies’ brains and nervous systems develop.

There is nothing more wondrous than watching as babies begin to learn and explore the world. With innocent joy and excitement, the newness they experience allows a profound connection between their surroundings and their selves.

The sensory system is the primary system that sets the foundation on which the higher brain centers grow. We are familiar with the five basic senses: touch, taste, vision, hearing, and smell. It is through these basic pathways that babies create neurological connections and perceive life outside of the womb.

Two equally important sensory systems, which aren’t as commonly recognized, begin to take on a dominant role as babies begin to coordinate movements and have greater interactions with the world. These two systems are known as the proprioceptive system and the vestibular system.

Proprioception is the ability to perceive the motion and position of our bodies in space. It is generated by receptors located within our joints, connective tissue and muscles. When activated by pressure and movement, proprioceptors signal the brain, telling it how and where the body is oriented.

The vestibular system creates balance and coordination while our center of gravity, posture and head position shift. As babies gain awareness through the five primary senses, they begin generating deliberate movements and gradually learn to hold up their heads, roll over, sit up, start crawling and, eventually, start walking.

Encouraging enjoyable activities that stimulate the basic senses is important, of course, yet we may underestimate the value of supporting proprioceptive and vestibular activities, as well. One of the simplest ways to motivate proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible. Feet are among the most sensory-rich parts of the human body. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch, and there are large concentrations of proprioceptors in their joints and muscles. The feet alone have as many proprioceptors as the entire spinal column!

This is exciting news, yet we live in a culture where wearing shoes through most of the day is the norm. Parents often put shoes on their babies even before they start walking, which can keep little feet restricted from the normal movement and exploration that prime the pathway for when they become mobile. By doing so, we inhibit the establishment of strong neurological pathways and connections.

Therefore, as babies begin to walk, they become accustomed to having limited movement and a barrier between the sensitive soles of their feet and the ground. In shoes, the little muscles and joints in the feet cannot accommodate the changing terrain of the surface they are walking on—which means that proprioceptors are not allowed to be optimally stimulated, and vestibular input is inhibited.

When allowed to be barefoot, tactile pathways feel the surface of the ground, proprioceptors respond to pressure, and the terrain creates slight imbalances that develop neuromuscular strength, spacial orientation, balance and coordination.

Obviously we want to protect our little ones when they play in the cold or on a surface that could hurt their feet. But with guidance and a soft patch of grass, dirt or wet leaves available, encourage babies to discover how great it feels to tromp around with naked feet! This provides them with a great platform to develop the higher brain centers responsible for emotional control, problem-solving, language, social skills and self-assurance.

Another benefit to keeping babies barefoot is that it encourages presence of mind and conscious awareness. As the little pads of babies’ feet feel, move and balance on the surface that they are exploring, the information sent to their brains from tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular pathways will inhibit other extraneous sensory input. This creates focus and awareness of walking and moving through space; babies get more tuned in to their surroundings.

This is an important message for adults, as well. It’s never too late to encourage the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in our own bodies; we continue to grow new neural connections, even as we age. But with age, our proprioceptive and vestibular systems often become inhibited. We lose balance and focus in our bodies and our lives, and as a result, may lose our profound connections to our environment, ourselves and other people.

When was the last time you took off your shoes and walked barefoot in the dirt, the grass, or a puddle of water? Encourage yourself, along with your babies and kids, to explore, play and be free to let the world tickle your senses! Not only does it feel amazing to intimately experience the earth beneath your feet, it can whisk you back to childhood. You can re-experience the world as a new and exhilarating place, just as babies do!