Fitting Shoes for Toddler Feet

When I was a kid, buying shoes seemed like a completely different endeavor than it does today. If my memory serves me well, almost every store had well-trained clerks to measure your feet, and find a shoe that ensured the best fit. Now that I have kids, these places seem few and far between. Probably because I'm a runner, but when I think of expert fitting and advice for shoes, I think of the local running store as the go-to…but not exactly for my kids. Parents shop for shoes differently these days, so I think it's our responsibility to ensure that shoes fit right! Allan is here to help!

Kids Shoes Made Easy

There are still a few of these places locally. I’ve taken Miles to a place in town that did a fairly good job at fitting, but I wasn’t pleased with all the advice given. The sales person had some strong opinions about how kids should never be barefoot. Additionally, I wasn’t convinced that the price was right for me. I get that paying a little more for a shoe is what allows for quality product and of service, even ethical wages, but for my kids, who only wear shoes for an average 3-5 months, and typically destroy them, cost and longevity are basically irrelevant.

As savvy parents in today’s world, I think regrettably most of us are far better at finding great shoe deals than finding great shoes. I’m here to tell you that you can do both. There are some simple step you can follow to assure a properly fitting shoe for your kids, and a price that can work into any budget. Its also important to consider that children are not adults: many of the features we seek out in shoes are not appropriate for little ones. To keep it simple, I'll focus on 3 main points.

Number One: Kids feet are amazing- Keep ‘em that way!

If you follow what Leonardo DaVinci said about the human foot, than the foot of the human child is even more spectacular. Baby’s feet start out completely flat and triangular. As babies begin to toddle and stand, the forces imposed on the bones of the foot by muscles and tendons are what begin to develop the foot into its eventual shape.  It is weight bearing through full range that helps to develop the foot arches (yes there are more than one) and other typical features.

Despite the consistently distinctive shape, the human foot is often crammed into shoes that are shaped completely differently, creating bony changes overtime that cannot be undone. 

Despite the consistently distinctive shape, the human foot is often crammed into shoes that are shaped completely differently, creating bony changes overtime that cannot be undone. 

This being said, the more time toddlers and preschoolers spend in shoes, the less opportunity their tiny adorable feet have to respond to natural weight bearing mobility. If the foot is not allowed to bend, flex, and grow as intended, it will eventually begin to suffer the effects of immobilization: loss of mobility and muscle atrophy. Find a great pair of shoes, but also help your kids feet stay strong and flexible by allowing them to have plenty of time barefoot. Even the best pair of shoes will change the way they feel the ground and move about.

Number Two: Too big is better than too small.

This is going to drive some folks out there absolutely crazy, but lets approach this logically. Finding a shoe that fits perfectly for your child means that they will have a shoe that fits for about three minutes. This puts parents in a bind. They can A) buy new shoes every couple of weeks, B) keep their kids in shoes that are usually too small, or C) buy shoes that are just a wee bit too big. Even though it drives my wife crazy, I have typically erred on the side of C.

As I discuss fitting in detail later, certain aspects of 'too big' can work better than others. We all think about shoes being slightly adjustable with laces and all, but in reality, the lacing does not truly make adjustment for changes in width or length. It does accommodate changes in shoe “volume,” which can occur with development of the long arch of the foot or added sock layer, but this is unlikely to change significantly over the span of a single pair of shoes.

Find a shoe that leaves a little room to grow, maybe even a half size to a full size too big, but be very selective. Shoe sizing can vary widely, even within a single brand, and a half-size in one shoe may be significantly larger than you might expect. Play around with sizing. It seems like a mortal sin to put your kid in a shoe too big, but ask yourself if its better or worse than a shoe that’s too small. Young children are often not very good at letting you know when they’ve outgrown shoes, so check sizing often. 

Number Three: Always Think Width First

Kids' feet are not shaped like adults' feet. If you see shoes that look similarly proportioned you should be suspicious. If you see a shoe that appears to have more fashion than function, beware. Before we crammed our feet into shoes ages ago, our feet were pretty wide too, almost triangular in shape. Human feet are naturally wide (for most of us), but shoes are notoriously made too narrow.

If you’re similar to me, I used to think that a tight fit through the forefoot felt great. Little did I know, it was creating bony changes in my foot that could not be undone. Chronically tight shoes can significantly alter the shape of a developing foot, as well as its related function. In the teen-adult foot world, this continued narrowness in the ‘toe box’ as it’s called, is to blame for bunions, hallux limitus, pes planus, Morton’s neuroma, and some have even theorized one cause of plantar faciitis as chronic restriction of the toes results in chronically impaired circulation of the forefoot.

I find most of us put far too much emphasis on shoe/foot length when fitting, and not nearly enough on width. More importantly, focus first on width, assuring the foot has plenty of room to spread out while in weighted stance. When it comes to fitting length, proper shoe fit actually has little to do with total length of the foot, but more on that in a bit.

Easy Ways to Get it Right

To get the fit right, think of the shoe in three dimensions.

The first dimension, width, was mentioned above of course. In adult shoes, it’s fairly easy to see when the weight of the shoe starts to ‘muffin top’ over the outer side of the shoe (typically the outside.) This is likely not going to be seen in most kid shoes. Kiddos simply don’t weigh enough to impose such a distortion on the shoe.

The easiest way to assess width is to remove the insert from the shoe and have the child stand on it. This should give you a good indicator of how the child’s foot will fit the width of the forefoot (and whether there’s some room to grow.) Also important, but not quite as variable is heel width.  Be sure that the child’s heel is also the right width for the shoe.

Once you have used the insert to assure a wide enough toe-box, have the child don the shoe, and assure that the shoe itself fits snugly around the heel and ankles. As I've fit my kids feet over time, I've noticed that often once I've found a shoe with enough room for the forefoot, the back of the shoe is far too loose, and then the kids feel the need to excessively tighten the shoe for comfort or to keep it on during play.

This shows how narrow this particular shoe is for this child. Close inspection reveals how previous shoes have already started to deviate the 5th toe inward toward the others. 

This shows how narrow this particular shoe is for this child. Close inspection reveals how previous shoes have already started to deviate the 5th toe inward toward the others. 

The second dimension is the height of the quarter and the topline at the back of the shoe. If the shoe is intended to cut below the ankle, be sure it leaves plenty of room there as not to cut into or partially cover the ankles. The sides of the back of the shoe should be relatively snug without tying the shoe, and be sure that the very back doesn’t cut into the Achilles area as well.

If you imagine the outer ankle in the purple shoe visualized near the yellow dot, the shoe sits far too high above this line. 

If you imagine the outer ankle in the purple shoe visualized near the yellow dot, the shoe sits far too high above this line. 

 

Thirdly, length is the last dimension to consider. When assessing the foot/shoe length, don’t focus on the toes too much. A proper shoe fit will line up the anatomical joint of the big toe with a structural hinge in the outer sole. Simpler, more minimalist shoes likely won’t have such a hinge in the outer sole, because the shoe is flexible and won’t need it. If you don’t see one in a thicker, more rigid shoe, leave it at the store. It will never allow your child’s foot to bend The Good Lord intended.

The first metatarsophalangeal joint or MTP should align perfectly with the hinged rubber of the shoe sole. This is how shoes are properly fit to length. 

The first metatarsophalangeal joint or MTP should align perfectly with the hinged rubber of the shoe sole. This is how shoes are properly fit to length. 

The outer sole of this athletic shoe has a clear indicator of where the first MTP joint should align. This is especially important in shoes with a more rigid outer, or thicker sole. 

The outer sole of this athletic shoe has a clear indicator of where the first MTP joint should align. This is especially important in shoes with a more rigid outer, or thicker sole. 

When it comes to finding the 'perfect' fitting shoe, that will likely be near impossible, or only stay that way for a short period of time. A better strategy would be to fit forefoot width first and secondly the ankle/heel width. If these two parameters work, than the length may be more negotiable, especially in a very flexible neutral shoe. The more a shoe functions like a slipper, the easier it will be to get away with imperfect sizing. If you continually seek out shoes similar to the one above, thick, overly supportive, and rigid, sizing becomes more critical in allowing the foot to properly function...and much less likely a possibility. 

At what age do these guidelines change? and athletic shoes?

In reality, these guidelines are almost universally applicable to all shoe fitting across the life span. The two factors that will make shoe selection more specific are foot pathology and demand of task. As we age, our feet change like every other part of our body. The ability to tolerate and thrive in a neutral shoe may be come more difficult, and hence specialty shoes or orthotics may be incorporated to improve activity tolerance.

Specificity of task will at some point demand a shoe function in a very particular way. Humans have evolved from 4 limbs adapted to grasp branches to two adapted for grasping tools, and the other two for bipedal gait. As task gets further from this activity, the foot will be asked to function in ways that are not intuitive to the anatomy of the foot, hence a ballet flat, a tap shoe, a rock climbing shoe, football cleats, an ice skate...all of these things are designed to inhibit some natural function of the foot to achieve a particular task.

This specialty shoe adoption is fine for short periods of time, but bear in mind that the more developmental time spent in footwear of this nature, the more long-term ramifications are to be expected. It may not make sense to have a child wear a specialized foot wear for prolonged periods when it is not called for. This is also subject to fashion. As trendy and ethical as Tom's may present, they do not allow adequate room for foot function

shoe companies that are getting kids shoes right

With the recommendations listed above, I have offered you enough information to choose the right size for your kiddos, no matter where you buy shoes. That being said, discount shoe retailers don't always commit to shoe design on the basis of function. You may get lucky looking for shoes at that box superstore, but cannot always depend on a repeat success. With this in mind I've listed a few niche shoe companies that offer products on a specific platform that make it more easy to find shoes with a particular shape or design in mind.  Here are just a few: 

1. Vivobarefoot has been a big promoter of foot products that are "zero drop" (that means the heel and forefoot are the same height) and little to no cushion to maximize foot feel and proprioception. They are a little pricey, but offer a unique product with characteristics difficult to find elsewhere. 

2. Altra is a small running shoe company that is built on a "zero drop" platform, with emphasis on an anatomically appropriate foot-box. They offer a small variety of kids shoes, but are notorious about continuing to develop and improve their products over time. 

3. Soft Star makes adorable shoes for little ones but also makes shoes across the ages, even for adults. 

4. Stride Rite is a shoe brand that offers toddler and big kid shoes in multiple widths, which is perfect for kids who may also have equipment like an AFO. Stride Rite is also a store that offers fitting services and a few other brands of shoes that typically offer well fitting shoes.

5. Skidders offers some very innovative shoe design that look like no other, but are limited to toddler and preschool ages: still a good option for that important growth period. 

6. Robeez offers baby shoes that are about a minimalist as they come which are perfect for developing walkers. Baby's walking frequently in construction zones may require a more hearty sole. 

Thanks for reading this weeks post! If you have any specific questions that aren't addressed in this post, please feel free to contact me via email. If you have a child with abnormal walking qualities or foot abnormalities, I'd recommend connecting with a pediatric specialist Physical Therapist who can assure that your child has the right tools for the job. 

Until next time...Keep moving! 

-Allan