Let Them Go Barefoot: On Why Our Toddler Doesn’t Wear Shoes
Disclaimer: This isn’t an article suggesting everyone and every child should be barefoot. We are not telling anyone how to live or what to do. We are sharing information and giving another perspective on footwear and barefoot living. I get many questions about our son never wearing shoes, and this was a fun way to answer those questions.
Our 16-month-old son has never worn shoes. Yes, never, as in never ever, as in we have never even purchased a pair of shoes for him. Other people have bought shoes for him on a couple of occasions. One pair never touched his feet, and he took the other pair off as soon as we tried them on. So that was that.
We get a lot of comments about it, especially as he gets older and when it’s chilly outside. (We live in Texas, so “chilly” is about as cold as it gets.) “Where are that baby’s shoes, Mom?” and “Where are your shoes? Aren’t your feet cold?” are some common ones.
So why do we choose to keep our baby totally barefoot as opposed to in minimal footwear? I’ve brought in Mariano, my son’s father (and my partner), to answer the most questions we get asked. Mariano spends his days barefoot, unless he is required to wear shoes for work or in some public places. He has been running up to 6 or 7 miles a day barefoot since I have known him. He has spent a lot of time learning about the foot through consultations with professionals and through personal trial and error. He’s learned how feet affect the rest of the body, and mostly how shoes have really taken a toll on us. He can articulate the answers to these questions much better than I can, so let’s get right to it.
How long have you been running barefoot?
I started about six or seven years ago, but I have been doing it more exclusively for the past four years. I run on average 3 to 4 miles a day.
When you say barefoot running, are you running completely barefoot, or are you wearing what many people refer to as barefoot shoes?
Yeah, actually barefoot. For the first couple of years I had Vibrams and Huaraches [brands of barefoot running shoes], but I ended up not liking either of them.
Why didn’t you like them?
My feet would sweat. But the main reason is because I couldn’t feel what I was doing as much, so I ended up hurting myself a lot. It wasn’t until I started being totally barefoot that I could feel how I was running improperly, because my skin would start to hurt in different areas, and that’s a sign that I was running wrong. I started running a lot more gracefully and properly once I got rid of the shoes.
What are the things you noticed in yourself and in your body when you went from wearing shoes to being barefoot?
I noticed I was more aware of my body and my posture. I noticed I moved differently. I felt more like an animal than a person. I started running more miles—up to 8 or 9 miles a day sometimes—and I got really fast and really agile and felt like a super human/animal.
Why is it important to you that our son is always barefoot?
If he wears anything on his feet then he won’t develop proper padding on his feet. You need pressure and friction to develop that. If he were to wear shoes— even for a short period of time—he would lose his padding. And then once you take the shoes off he won’t like it as much because his feet have gotten soft and sensitive, and he will be likely to get hurt more. Also, for him to feel more in touch with his environment; with the environment. I want him to develop his muscles, bones, and posture properly. If there is anything on his feet that alters the geometry of how his feet and legs work, then it’s going to alter his whole body. I could also go into how that affects your emotional state, but I just want him to be as natural as possible. A baby foot is different than a full-grown foot. In order for a baby’s foot to properly grow into an adult foot, it needs certain input and feedback. It expects a certain type of environment and interaction with the environment. If it doesn’t get that, the muscles, tendons, and bones start to develop differently. Shoes squeeze the toes and feet together when they’re supposed to be spreading. That spreading action and all the muscles being activated is circulating fluid and telling the foot how to grow, but if they’re always kept in a shoe they don’t feel anything different at all except the inside of a shoe. They start to atrophy and lose their ability to feel. Not to mention you’ll walk like Frankenstein’s monster, which you see often with children wearing bulky shoes. From the feet up, your muscles, legs, feet, and back will tighten and develop in unnatural ways.
What are the effects of children wearing bulky shoes?
Children won’t be balanced properly, especially in shoes with thick or raised soles. Your body is designed to be standing up a certain way, from the feet all the way up to your head, in cahoots with gravity. If you’re altering the feet (the base), it alters everything. When kids are playing, walking around, running, and climbing, and they don’t have their feet, well…imagine trying to maneuver with boxing gloves on, or mittens, even. It greatly hinders their capabilities to maneuver and feel their surroundings. Hands are one of the most complicated parts in a mammal, and the foot is way more complex than the hand. Shoes make the body cumbersome to move around. Not only that, but things start to tighten from the feet up. It becomes more robotic than fun, and the body is designed to have fun. Fun in ways that are restricted with shoes. Of course, you can be having fun with shoes on, but it’s a whole new world without shoes. Your body can do so many more things.
[Note: I can attest to this because I grew up doing tumbling. My skill level was so much lower when I had to wear shoes to tumble. When I took off my shoes, my skill level would increase tenfold. I felt almost like I was flying without shoes.]
If you can’t feel the ground then you don’t know how to respond to it. When you’re wearing shoes you may think, What’s the difference between a gravelly surface and concrete? Or marble and sand? When your feet can actually feel it, you’re going to interact with it totally differently. For example, if you’re walking on gravel, you’re going to drop and bend in the knees and be more graceful and agile, because if you don’t, it’s obviously going to hurt. If you’re only used to one surface—which is all that shoes provide—then you never really do the thing where you have to maneuver according to your environment. When you walk on rocks and pebbles, you even start using your arms to balance and put less weight on your feet. You activate your whole body. In shoes, you never get that because you’re always on flat surfaces, and the animal in you is never activated.
Obviously (and understandably), many parents claim shoes are about health and safety. Germs and sharp objects are a legitimate concern. Can you address these concerns?
Well, I have a few points there. First, if the child wears shoes a lot, then their feet and skin are going to be very sensitive, and they’ll be more prone to getting hurt. People worry about things like glass and metal—and obviously, you don’t want your kid walking around in a junkyard without shoes. Be mindful of where you are and remove any sharp objects you see. That’s a no-brainer. There is also a fear of infection, or fear of germs and spit. That has to do more with immune system health. Kids get hurt; they get cut. If you happen to cut or puncture yourself, know how to heal it properly. Let it air out; don’t cover it up, don’t put weird stuff on it because then you’ll just kill all the good bacteria. Also, trust your child’s self-preservation system. It is really advanced. That’s why indigenous cultures and tribes can trust their kids to handle very dangerous objects and be near cliffs, because their bodies already have that intelligence.
[Note: We are not suggesting anyone should let their child hang out near cliffs or handle dangerous objects. We just have a fascination and interest in the way other cultures live with their children. It is pretty interesting stuff, if you want to look into it.]
When you are wearing shoes, you don’t care where you are walking. You will walk on all kinds of things, things you would definitely not walk on without shoes. When you are barefoot, you look down a lot more. You look around at your environment a lot more. Not in a way that’s like you are worrying about every step you take, but over time it becomes more second nature, and you’re not overly fixated on it. You’re more in and aware of your environment. You have to do it for a while to understand.
What about people living in really cold climates?
A really good example is the Iceman [Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, known for his ability to withstand extreme cold]. You can Google him and see what he does. He talks a lot about adapting to cold. When you are barefoot, your whole foot is getting activated and there’s more circulation. Shoes are like having your feet in a little oven, so your feet get used to that and circulation is lower. If you introduce your skin to the cold, then your circulation will increase, your body will produce more insulation in the foot with fat cells, and the skin on the bottom of your foot will thicken a little bit. Cold and pressure—and heat, also—create more padding on the bottom of your foot. It’s all about slowly increasing it. If you live in a cold environment, just go outside barefoot every day for a small amount of time, and gradually increase it, depending on how cold it is. Especially when you run, your whole body heats up. Your skin will be cold but you won’t feel as cold. It’s something you want to do gradually so you can adapt to it, but you can definitely adapt to it. You just have to change the way you think about cold, and the way your body interacts with the cold.
A lot of people seem to think that kids’ feet being cold makes them prone to getting sick. Do you have anything to say on that?
I don’t believe that cold makes you sick. If you’re constantly warm all the time and all of a sudden you shock yourself with cold, then yeah, you can shock your system too much, to the point it throws you off balance and you get sick, but that’s not because of the cold. You always want to gradually be introducing yourself to the coldness. I don’t think it’s the cold that will ever get you sick, it’s you tightening up against the cold. When you introduce your body to cold, you will likely constrict in certain areas, and that blocks your energy and then the area that is tense—the meridian or organ or whatever—is more prone to getting sick. Therefore, another key is to relax into the coldness and breathe into it as you introduce more into your daily life.
With kids, yes, they are sensing the cold, but they sense it as energy more than anything. If anything, it excites them and invigorates them. Sometimes they will refuse the cold, but that’s likely if they’ve been bundled up constantly, and so now cold is intense and uncomfortable to them. You can start to make cold weather a common thing, such as letting them be bare-chested a little bit outside. Just see what happens. You don’t need to keep them like that for hours, but just see what happens. I think the skin needs to feel a variation of temperatures and weather.
Inevitably, some people are going to reject this idea. Going barefoot might be too much for some people. At the same time, they don’t want their kids to face these issues that you talked about. Is there some middle ground here that you can offer people? Any shoes you would recommend?
I would say barefoot as much as possible. If they are going to wear shoes, then wear shoes with as little sole and rubber as possible. Ideally, you want some sort of moccasin where the toes can spread, the heel isn’t raised up, and there is no arch support. Those arches man, if there is something supporting feet, they will start to atrophy, and then you’ll get flat feet. Especially with the young kids. Zero drop, which means the heel isn’t raised. The heel, balls of the feet, and the toes are at the same level. The thinnest possible thing.
If you see your kids playing while being barefoot, use some common sense, and when you feel worried about them getting hurt, try to let that feeling be there and feel into the anxiety a little more. I think it will all be OK.
So there you have it. I am very happy with our decision to keep our son barefoot. I personally believe it’s a huge reason he is as coordinated, active, and confident with his movement as he is now. Oh, and if you are wondering, he has never had a foot injury or stepped on anything sharp from being barefoot.