Use the Latest Research to Buy the Right Shoes for Your Child

I never would have thought that buying shoes for children would be a complicated matter. But one day in my early shoe-buying days, I wondered how much space there should be between the top of my child’s toe and the top of the shoe. I looked it up and the search results opened a Pandora’s box of other considerations that changed the way I thought about children’s footwear. 

Children's shoes displayed with the latest research insights for informed purchase decisions

A Guide to Buying the Right Shoes for Your Child Using the Latest Research

After reviewing the sometimes conflicting opinions on how to choose footwear, I arrived on a basic approach for choosing footwear for the kids.

Exploring the Latest Trends in Children’s Footwear

First, my major takeaways on footwear in general:

  • Research in this area is slowly emerging and evolving
  • There is a movement away from stiff and over-supportive shoe towards footwear that is soft, flexible and conforming to the natural shape of the foot as researchers delve into the root cause of many foot pain, problems, and deformities as people age
    3. People in barefoot communities rarely have the foot problems that shoe-wearing people have developed
    4. How we walk has actually been shaped by the shoes we wear (for better or worse)
    5. Shoes that support the natural shape of the foot and gait are now thought to be best because they support the development of strong feet
    6. Over supportive shoes do too much work for the foot, so that the foot becomes weak and prone to injury. For long-term foot health, the objective is to develop strong and stiff feet. 
  • The majority of shoe-buying guides for children support the current thought that we should allowing a child’s foot to grow naturally, which means flexible, minimal, non-restrictive footwear that retains barefoot feel while protecting the foot. However, they stop short of advising that adults do the same.
  • The majority of adult and children footwear sold in stores is still supportive athletic shoes with elevated heels and trendy footwear (think high heels, shoes with lights, pointy toes) that prioritize fashion trends over natural footwear.

Buying the Best Footwear for Children

So what does this mean for the footwear that I buy my children? Back to the original question!  I wrote a post to list the best minimalist, athletic footwear I’ve found for my kids. Below are my major takeaways on buying footwear both for children and incidentally, adults as well:

  • Childen’s feet as in all other areas of their body are in developmental stage so all the more critical it is to have footwear that allows them to grow properly. Most experts, buying guides, and recent research seem to agree on this one, that up through toddlerhood, children should wear shoes that are minimal, flexible, allowing them to feel the ground properly as they learn to walk and run:
    1. Shoes should not restrict any sort of natural movement of the foot. Anything that restricts the natural spread of the foot lengthwise or width-wise can cause foot development deformities that lead to foot pain in later life.
    2. The shoe should adhere to the foot completely, so that the heel isn’t falling out or the foot sliding back and forth sideways or front to back. However, there should always be a little room at the top of the shoe for growth and varying foot sizes (feet tend to swell at the end the day). 
    3. Try shoes on at the end of the day for best fit, since feet tend to swell by the end of the day
    4. Avoid second-hand shoes if possible – I’ve adapted this to occasional wear (backup shoes for the younger one!). See point below about changing up your shoes every now and then. 
    5. Shoes should not have any heel at all (known as zero drop) and flexible soles that can bend AND twist
  • After age ~5 is where the opinions seem to diverge significantly and you’ll have to decide where you fall on this debate to determine your purchasing choices. Some continue to feel that the same philosophy applies to footwear of all ages. However, the mainstream opinion and footwear options feel that shoes need to have more rigidity for stability, arches for support, toe spring to aid the foot forward, and so on.
    1. An example of this divergence can be found in the difference between the APMA (American Podiatric Medical Association) guide and the opinion from the emerging minimalist movement.;
    2. The emerging minimalist footwear movement differs:
  • Even if you decide that flexibilty and zero drop are important in shoes, as children get older and play more sports (like soccer or tennis), they may need shoes that have more cushioning to reduce the repetitive stress on joints when running on hard surfaces or insoles that help to keep the legs and feet in alignment and balanced as some sports tend to place more stress on certain areas than others.
  • Applying the same child footwear philosophy to adults makes sense to me.  I found this online video guide for children’s footwear to be particularly helpful for both kids and adults:
  • Any shoe should feel comfortable right away – don’t expect it will get better with wear.
    1. It’s possible that it will, but the time you spend wearing an uncomfortable shoe is bad for your foot health
    2. Most likely, it won’t get better – only worse because you’ll be aggravating whichever part of  your foot for a longer period of time once you actually wear the shoe out the store
  • Order shoes online (with a free return policy!) whenever possible – this gives you time to wear a shoe indoors for a longer period of time. Even shoes that feel comfortable right away in the store, can start to feel uncomfortable after an hour. And you never would have known that if you bought the shoe from a store and wore it outside right away. If you only wear them indoors, you can still return them! Added bonus: you don’t have to deal with your kids in a shoe store arguing with them about selecting all kinds of shoes that aren’t good for their feet!
  • Switch your (properly fitted) footwear around on a regular basis – this allows you to exercise different muscles, bones, and joints instead of applying repetition to the same areas by wearing the same shoe everyday. So for kids this may mean not having just one pair of shoes to wear for the entire year, but 2-3 pairs to change out on a regular basis


Below is a list of additional links that I reviewed in my research:

Posts on kids’ developing feet needs:

Looking at the big picture, footwear for adults:

Mainstream guide to choosing shoes:

Minimalist guide to buying shoes:

Athletic shoe buying guides:

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