I grew up in a culture where going barefoot is not the norm. “You’ll get sick.”, they would say.
“It’s dirty. You might get germs.”, others would add.
When Pablo was a few months old, I came across an article that talked about the benefits of going barefoot. Then I remembered what I read from Montessori from the Start when I was pregnant: that uncovered feet for infants enables the baby to take in many tactile experiences and stimulates their mental development! Ahhh. That’s the thing when you read before giving birth, not all of it gets through. Moreover, the authors Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jansen talked about how freer use of foot equals stronger muscle development, and that with barefoot, babies won’t slip and they learn to count on their feet.
So I did more and more and more research, and finally came to the conclusion that my son, although was already not often wearing socks, really did not need them.
Just a little bit of information before I go on: Pablo only started wearing shoes when he was already about 10 or 11 months, when we wanted to check out how he will fare for our then upcoming trip to Paris – we weren’t sure how cold it would be so we thought of allowing him to explore shoes before we flew. We tried putting shoes on him when he was younger, before I actually really understood the benefits of going barefoot, but he hated it! The only shoes that worked for him were the soft-soled crocheted boots we wore on him during our trip to snow-filled Lake Tahoe. Everything else – he would kick and remove. We dint know why then, but we just followed his lead and did not wear the shoes. He knew best, after all.
Fast forward to this day (he is currently 16 months), if ever he wears shoes, he only wears soft-soled shoes (you know those shoes that have tiny rubber dots on the sole that works as anti-skid? That one. Ever so thankful to Amy of Midwest Montessori for guiding me here – I was almost about to give in to those hard-soled shoes when he started walking. My problem now though, is finding larger sizes for soft-soled shoes. Hopefully, we find one.). He also rarely wears socks. I don’t even remember when he last wore one. When he was an infant, we would only put socks on him whenever we’d have doctor visits and we knew the hospital was quite cold, or we’re headed to the mall and we weren’t sure back then if he was cold or not, but the moment he started moving his feet (to kick, to crawl, to walk, etc), socks were pretty much unheard of in our household. At home, he has no slippers, too. He is barefoot 99% of the time. When we travel, we let him go barefoot as much as possible, too. So far, he has not gotten any kind of illness from “going barefoot”. We have seen nothing but benefits for our little one.
1. SHOES GO IN THE WAY OF YOUR FOOT’S NATURAL DEVELOPMENT
“Research published in podiatry journal The Foot in 2007 suggests that structural and functional changes can result from the foot having to conform to the shape and constriction of a shoe, rather than being allowed to develop naturally. And the younger the foot, the greater the potential for damage.” (source: HERE) When I first read about how out foot is supposed to grow outwards rather than trim and collected, it reminded me of China’s foot-binding. A lot of us cannot stand the thought that it was being done to the women of China in the olden times, but come to think of it, shoes do the same to our feet.
Here’s more from the source I cited: “The human foot at birth is not a miniature version of an adult foot. In fact, it contains no bones at all and consists of a mass of cartilage, which, over a period of years, ossifies to become the 28 bones that exist in the adult human foot. This process is not complete until the late teens, so it is crucial that footwear – when worn – is well chosen.”
This is apparently why there are a lot of us who suffer from foot issues – because our feet were not given the chance to develop naturally. Moreover, many of us were not even given the right kind of shoes. That article is so right, when it stated that many parents treat their children as fashion accessories and choose shoes on their attractiveness or coolness, rather than their ergonomics. Ouch. That was me before giving birth – what I had in mind were the prettiest shoes, not realizing how detrimental some could be to my son’s foot development.
Just a side story, one time, I was showing my Physical Therapist a video of then 13 or 14-month-old Pablo going down the ladder of a playground. Each ladder step was thin and the distance of each step to each other was quite high, yet Pablo was able to go down without falling or losing balance. She was so amazed how Pablo was using all his toes to help him go down. When I asked why using his toes was amazing (“Isn’t that what all children do?, I asked.), she told me that her patients usually don’t use their toes, but their arch. “Why did it become like that?”, I asked. “Well, usually, because they wore shoes too early and feet were constricted.” Yikes. Ending? Physical therapy for them, which could have been avoided had they been given the freedom of movement, including being barefoot.
Now, whenever I see our feet, I think of our hands. Can we survive doing things and keeping our balance if we had gloves or mittens all the time?
2. GOING BAREFOOT ALLOWS YOUR CHILD TO GET USED TO DIFFERENT TEXTURES. I’m sure you’ve heard of children having a hard time when their feet feel something new, like grass, or sand, or pebbles. Going barefoot allows them to get used to different surfaces and textures, so they’re less likely to complain when it isn’t all smooth. The even better news is, they not only get to sensitize their feet to different textures, they also effortlessly learn how to shift their weight properly. I’ve seen this with my son – we were so nervous about him falling while walking on sand with rocky surroundings. We were nervous because had he lost his balance and hit his head on a rock, it would really have been a bad hit. But he walked and walked for at least 30 minutes, and not once did he lose his balance without catching himself back. To think that it was not only sand, but also waves crashing on the sand. It’s worth noting too, that his head got hit, by my camera when I tried to hold him. Argh. Children are really better left to move on their own. [facepalm]
3. BAREFOOT ALLOWS YOU TO DO SOME GROUNDING [OR EARTHING]. This is probably the most famous one, at least lately, when THIS VIDEO of grounding went viral on Facebook (you can also check THIS out). I first learned about grounding when I was researching on radiation, and stumbled upon Mama Natural’s blog. In her cheatsheet (that you can download for free), grounding is one of the recommended ways to lessen your EMF exposure. Since the day I read her blog, I’ve been working towards going more and more barefoot. And all the more I was letting Pablo go barefoot virtually everywhere!
THIS BLOGPOST explains it best for me: “Consider that in your body, there are a certain number of ‘free radicals’ which are the leftover particles associated with inflammation. These particles create lots of stress and discord within your body when there are too many of them, and if untreated usually leads to chronic problems and ailments. These free radicals have a positive charge. The Earth meanwhile, has a NEGATIVE charge. (the free radicals have a positive charge). This means when you come into contact with the Earth, with your bare feet, you’re discharging yourself, and this means you’re allowing all the excess energy to go into the ground. Doing this for about 30-60 minutes a day will allow you a vast improvement in your energy and overall well being. You’ll feel less lethargic and more able to go and do things. You’ll have a much lower level of inflammation and you’ll even sleep better.”
4. GOING BAREFOOT BOOSTS BRAIN DEVELOPMENT. According to THIS ARTICLE, “going barefoot is important to the development of the nervous system and to optimal brain development as well! Turns out the feet are the most nerve-rich parts of the human body, which means they contribute to the building of neurological pathways in the brain. Covering them in shoes, therefore, means we’re eliminating all kinds of opportunities for children’s brains to grow new neural connections.” I remember watching a documentary on neural connections before (I forget what it is – will edit when I find it) and the thing is, when these neural connections are unused, they die or are reduced. Imagine all the opportunity lost in children for brain development just because they are wearing shoes. In this case, it may not be about having unused neural connections, but no growth of neural connections at all. Not only that, by wearing shoes, there are a LOOOT of unused muscles, which as we know, muscles when not used, weaken overtime. This results in lazy feet! Or feet that are too sensitive! Seriously, this is me! See, I’m the type who got used to the lavish treatments of foot spas and massages AND I only buy comfortable shoes. And you know what I realized? This lead to having such sensitive feet that a little hardness can be very painful for me. You know those rope ladders in play areas? I cannot climb those without hurting my feet, seriously. Pablo will do much better than me if we had a race.
5. GOING BAREFOOT HELPS DEVELOP OUR SENSORY SYSTEMS. I will just let THIS ARTICLE do the talking, because I cannot word it better than how they wrote it: “The sensory system is the primary system that sets the foundation for higher brain centers to grow upon. 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 the perception of 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 and is generated by receptors located within our joints, connective tissue, and muscles. When activated by pressure and movement, proprioceptors send direct signaling to the brain telling it how the body is oriented.
The vestibular system is the creation of balance and coordination as changes in 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, crawl, and eventually start walking.
Encouraging enjoyable activities that stimulate the basic senses is, of course, important, yet we may underestimate the value in 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 one of 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 the joints and muscles of the feet. In fact, 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 and, thus, we inhibit the establishment of strong neurological pathways and connections. Parents often put shoes on their babies even before the little ones start walking, which can keep little feet restricted from the normal movement and exploration that is needed to prime the pathway for when they become mobile.
Then, as babies begin to walk, they are accustomed to having limited movement and a barrier between the sensitive soles of their feet and the ground. Proprioceptors are not allowed to be optimally stimulated, and vestibular input is inhibited as the little muscles and joints in the feet cannot accommodate to the changing terrain of the surface they are walking on.
When a child is allowed to be barefoot, his/her tactile pathways feel the surface of the ground, proprioceptors respond to pressure, and the terrain creates slight imbalances that create neuromuscular strength, spacial orientation, balance, and coordination.”
Allowing your proprioceptive system and the vestibular system to develop by going barefoot is very important for #6, the last and my most favorite effect of going barefoot!
[Note: My husband said this bit is too nerdy. “Who will read it?”, he asked me. YOU! You enjoyed this, too, didn’t you? Please tell me yes because I loved, loved, loved reading this bit!]
6. GOING BAREFOOT IS THE SECRET TO HAVING A REALLY GOOD BALANCE. Although already explained in reason #5, let me just make a special number for this, because really, I have seen the effect on Pablo – his balance in really good (watch THIS – my 16-month-old child), and I owe it to him being barefoot on most hours! I also see the effect on me! When a surface if quite slippery (and downhill), I tend to take off my shoes and go barefoot. I never slip that way!
Teacher Tanya Velasco, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) Educator, shared what RIE Founder Magda Gerber said about going barefoot: “I suggest leaving your child in bare feet as much as possible. She will be able to achieve better balance by gripping her toes for support. Parents may feel that little shoes look adorable but small babies have no use for shoes. For warmth, use soft, flexible shoes, or socks with nonskid soles.”
Moreover, the book Take Off Your Shoes and Walk by Simon J. Wikler also talks about a study from 1957-1960 on children who were allowed to go barefoot. It was found that these children had less deformed toes, greater flexor strength, more ability to spread the toes, denser muscles on the bottom of the feet, greater agility than those who had never gone barefoot, and a wider range of hip circumduction and more flexibility of the gluteal and hamstring muscles, which gave them the ability to touch their toes when their knees were held stiff [SOURCE: HERE]. Amazing, right?
Here’s more: Going barefoot not only improves your balance, but your posture and natural gait as well. “Your gait is the natural distance or movement of your stride when you walk or run. It affects your susceptibility to injury, and also your other joints connected to your feet, such as your knees and hips. Having a natural gait allows you to walk naturally and with a lower rate of injury, in general. By walking barefoot, you experience a more natural gait, because you aren’t able to take large bounding strides, as you’d hurt your feet. This means you are forced to take a smaller stride, and think more carefully about your foot placement. Because your feet are exposed to the elements and the objects on the ground, you’re made to take a natural, safe step.” [Source: HERE]
“It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.” – Dr. William A. Rossi, 1999 article in Podiatry Management
It’s amazing to know all these benefits, and all from following what nature has intended for us. It isn’t common sense for many of us (that includes me who grew up wearing shoes), but now that I know more, it’s so easy for me to understand the reality that humans had far healthier feet prior to the advent of shoes. [Source: HERE]
In case you’re wondering…
What if we get germs? The short answer is, our skin is made to keep pathogens out. You can give the same argument for our hands, but we never think of putting gloves/mittens all day, everyday, don’t we?
Now, what if we step on a sharp thing? Will it not hurt? Arguable. Going barefoot often allows our feet to develop tough skin, which serves as our protection from these things. I know the norm is for us to want our babies to have soft, “baby” skin as long as possible, but developing this is important for their development. Funny, just the other day, I was feeling Pablo’s feet while he was sleeping, and I noticed that – the tough skin has formed, but interestingly, it’s not hard, but tough. Anyway, this got me thinking…maybe this is exactly why he doesn’t seem to EVER get hurt on whatever he steps at. One time, he stepped on a lot of little legos (legos of his cousin) – it was A LOT, and it hurt my feet, but he did not show any signs of pain at all. He also walks barefoot around our compound, both on grass and on tough stone (with little rocks scattered around), and he doesn’t show any signs of pain. We almost thought he might have a high pain tolerance disorder (you know those people who NEVER feel pain?), but then again, he reacts with other things, like when I accidentally hit his head or something. So yes, I believe him going barefoot has toughened his feet for his own good.
If you want to know more benefits of going barefoot, just google and I’m sure you will see a lot more. Even without seeing the actual scientific backup, I encourage you try and allow yourself to observe the difference!
“Children have been moving in sneakers for physical activity for so long we seem to have forgotten that feet do have sentient qualities. They can be used to grip the floor for strength and balance, and their different parts (toes, ball, sole, heel) can be more easily felt and used when bare. Furthermore, there is evidence indicating that going barefoot strengthens feet and improves body alignment. Young children feel a natural affinity for the ground that can be enhanced by removing all the barriers between it and the feet.” – Rae Pica, Active Learning Across the Curriculum: Teaching the Way They Learn
EDIT: Please check out Lesley’s comment below, as well as THIS LINK. 🙂