Photo above: my first kiddo experiencing the environment under her feet in minimalist shoes for babies – leather Bobux brand shoes with a nice, wide toe box.
Note: this post is NOT meant to be exhaustive! Brands are entering the market all the time, so consider this my experience and my favorites. Add your thoughts & favorites in the comments!
If you’re a parent, you might have heard something like this from well-meaning friends or relatives:
“Your baby is walking! Looks like s/he’s ready for some nice, sturdy shoes!”
But what do they mean by “sturdy” shoes? Do our precious little ones’ feet really need outside help from a foot corset to do their jobs?
I’m being silly, of course. But if I’m honest, when I used to wear shoes with “sturdy” soles and arch support, I felt like my feet were completely immobilized in an old-school undergarment.
Perhaps that’s because it’s not natural to put a laced-up casing around the
19 tendons and muscles,
107 ligaments, and
that all work together in our amazing, capable feet.
Our feet aren’t just there to propel us from point A to point B like trains on a track. Their job includes locomotion, of course, but they also provide sensory input that affects our entire body – connecting our bodies to the earth so we can sense what’s beneath us, so that we can make the millions of tiny adjustments that propel us through the world.
The sensory input to our feet, from heel to toes, impacts not just how the entire body moves, but also how our brains work!
And “sturdy” sole – which really means a thick, rigid sole – blunts a lot of that.
So how does this affect kids?
I used to think that most kids’ shoes were fine and dandy – by virtue of the fact that they aren’t five-inch stilettos or some of the thick-soled Herman Munster shoes I wore in college.
I guess I wasn’t thinking all that hard about it.
But the truth is, traditional, “sturdy, arch-supportive” footwear is being called into question by parents and podiatrists alike.
I was first introduced to this concept when I ran across this video, which shows the stark contrast in gait (walking pattern) between minimalist and “sturdy” toddler shoes.
Needless to say, I was pretty shocked.
When my daughter was a brand-new walker, I observed the very same thing I saw in the video: barefoot walking and minimalist shoes both made her look like a pro from pretty early on.
But as soon as I put on the cute, heavy-soled, inflexible, molded, arch-supported, “sturdy” new shoes we were gifted, kiddo looked like she’d been over-served, then told to walk the plank with old, sticky bubble gum attached to her soles.
(I mean, I had always thought all babies walked like drunk bachelorettes. Not the case.)
Check out this video I made, featuring my 1-year-old in a variety of shoe types.
I was on to something.
I’m certainly not the first to notice this phenomenon. In fact, this topic has been addressed by minimalist-happy professionals for more than a decade. (And probably much longer than that.) Some good science backs the minimalist practice, too.
Science or not, though, this discussion could be founded entirely on the assumption that it’s just good common sense to let the body do what it’s meant to do, with as little interference as possible, from as early on as possible.
But I’m not the expert – I’m just here to share my experience as a parent and spark your quest toward the experts – so I’ll give a few good starting points to start gathering information for yourself.
From there, I’ll share my favorites for the best minimalist footwear for babies, toddlers and kids.
Here’s what the experts have been saying…
Here’s a 2010 article from The Guardian with experts discussing why barefoot is best for children.
I also love this fantastic, expert-and-science-filled 2008 piece in NY Mag. Quote:
“Admittedly, there’s something counterintuitive about the idea that less padding on your foot equals less shock on your body. But that’s only if we continue to think of our feet as lifeless blocks of flesh that hold us upright. The sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings in it, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in the body. Our feet are designed to act as earthward antennae, helping us balance and transmitting information to us about the ground we’re walking on.”
An easy introduction to biomechanist and movement expert Katy Bowman’s thoughts on this topic can be found here.
Your Kids Might Be Wearing Heels, Right Now is another great read from Bowman.
And, of course, for everything you need to know about what the feet are, how they work, and how to quit “footcorseting” (yeah, that’s a word), try Bowman’s book: Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief (less technical) and Whole Body Barefoot (more technical).
My experiences & favorite minimalist picks
A personal anecdote: when I switched to minimalist footwear, my lifelong issues with shin splits completely resolved. Merrell Vapor Gloves are my go-to because of the wide toe box, which lets my toes do their thing(s).
Now, many of the objections to minimalist footwear deal with the potential for injury during the transition from standard footwear (that was the entire origin of the Vibram lawsuit, years back), but that has nothing to do with minimal footwear being “bad.” It has to do with undoing the long-term effects of not allowing our feet to do what they’re supposed to do.
While adults are generally told to transition to minimalist footwear slowly to prevent such injury (it takes work to undo a lifetime of unnatural footwear), if a kid wears minimal footwear from the beginning, I don’t see a cause for concern.
But, as always, talk to your pediatric podiatrist before making any changes (because, you know, we all have one of those on speed dial).
I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO SAY: why not just let kids be barefoot? Welp, most childcare facilities have a rule against it, for one. Personally, for outside, I like to have a little extra layer between kiddo and random thorns, biting insects, jagged cracked acorns, and unexpected bits of glass and metal. But when we can, yes – we go barefoot. (And diaper free, but that’s another discussion.)
Minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids: what to look for
What to look for when choosing shoes:
- Flat, thin, flexible soles: the sole of a minimalist shoe shouldn’t be an inch thick. The thinnest, most flexible sole possible is ideal. Some shoes achieve this with simple leather soles (like my favorite from Bobux, listed below), others with rubber or synthetics. My favorite baby/toddler shoes have a leather sole, which protects from the basic outside dangers yet remains amazingly flexible. The top photo in this post is a pair of Bobux’s red leather Mary Janes.
Yes, we need to use caution and possibly thicker soles when playing outside in giant thorn bushes or among poisonous snakes and rusty nails (also: don’t do those things), but for the most part, flat and flexible is the ticket.
- Avoid a “positive heel.” To avoid stress on tiny feet, you want your little one’s heel to be at the same level as their toes. (The term is “zero-drop.”) In most shoes and boots, the sole of the heel is thicker than the sole at the toes. Not ideal, and I can’t for the life of me understand why this is the case.
- Flat, wide toe box and a close (not tight) fit through the heel. Make sure little toes have plenty of space to spread out within the shoe without sacrificing a streamlined, close fit. (Internet search: “proprioception”). The toes need plenty of room to move, but the shoe shouldn’t be so loose that the feet have to “grip” them to hang on.
On that note: No flip flops! Yes, they might be totally flat, but just observe how your foot has to move to keep them on at every step. It’s like a weird, unnatural “gripping” action that interferes with normal foot biomechanics.
Minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids: my personal favorites
Below you’ll see our (partial) stash of different options. Sadly, a few of the companies have gone out of business since we bought them for my first daughter; happily, since the first version of this post, a lot of new companies have started making minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids.
While I’ve tried tons of brands, my favorites are the ones below – most of them are from Bobux USA, with a few boot options from other brands.
For boots, we mostly use the black ones in the center (Bogs), which aren’t exactly minimalist – they’re pretty inflexible – but they do have a zero-drop sole.
Here are my absolute favorite minimalist options for babies, toddlers, and kids.
Their Soft Soles and XPlorers collections are my favorite!
I absolutely adore both the style and fit of these collections. With the exception of the two higher-topped winter boots, all shoes pictured in this post, including the fur-lined boots, are from Bobux. The white polka-dot shoes are Bobux IWalks, which are a bit too thick-soled for my taste, but options become limited as feet get bigger! The rest of the shoes are all from their Soft Soles collection. We’ve sadly sized out of the XPlorers, but we had a pair of those, too.
The seam on the Soft Sole shoes faces inward, making the shoes look super streamlined and nice – they’re great for playing outside (even though they’re listed as being for inside use – #offlabel) and for Sunday brunch! They’re like a leather sock. Like a flexible, breathable, protective layer. I love them!
They last forever, too – we’ve now handed them down to our second daughter. The only reason I have so many is because the only thing I like to spend more money on than food is baby clothing. (Capsule wardrobe my arse.)
- Soft Star Shoes. This is a great USA-based company and a big favorite of many minimalist-leaning parents! The only reason I put Bobux first is because we love the style(s) and the fit – it’s perfect for us, but that doesn’t take anything away from Soft Star!
Another GREAT thing about Soft Star: they make shoes all the way up to adult sizes. That’s pretty amazing.
- Robeez. Similar to Bobux and Soft Star. Super cute designs!
- Ulla Viggo. Adorable, handmade minimalist leather shoes.
- Plae. As my first daughter grew, we ended up buying a LOT of Plae shoes. While they’re not as flexible as I’d like, the toe box is wide enough, they’re generally zero-drop, they’ve got rain boots, and the styles are great!
- Vivo Barefoot. This appears to be the next most viable option for the post-toddler years. Synthetic soles, but a company dedicated to minimalist locomotion.
- Water socks. You can buy these in multiple brands on Amazon and in most stores, especially around summertime. Most of them are thin-soled, durable, and affordable. They’re wide in the toe box and – bonus – they’re waterproof and hose-downable!
Minimalist winter boots for babies, toddlers, and kids
Winter shoes for little ones are a bit tougher. We’ve tried Stonz Booties, My Mayu boots (now out of business), Plae boots, and Bogs. All of them are great, though no toddler-friendly winter shoe is going to be truly minimalist-friendly in every single way. And that’s OK!
- Stonz booties, when paired with liners and wool socks, are fantastic for playing in the snow. The only con: they’re slightly bulky. (While I love the brand, many of their other options are inflexible with positive heels.)
Stonz rain boots also look, at the very least, zero-drop, but they are less flexible than the booties.
- Bogs have a much less flexible sole, but they fit snugly, which means I know my kiddo’s feet are facing the right direction (laughs). These have become our go-to boots for rainy days. (And I love my Bogs, too!)
- Plae also carries waterproof winter boots from time to time!
I hope these options are helpful! If you’re overwhelmed, try not to stress: many a maximalist-soled baby has gone on to have productive lives, large stashes of Bitcoin, and Ivy League degrees.
What are your favorite minimalist footwear options for your little one? Leave your suggestions below in the comments!
Thanks for reading!