Let Them Toddle.
Babies are born with flat feet. This is a soft, kissably pliable, cute fact of life.
So why do parents freak out the moment their little one boldly takes their first wobbly steps, putting them immediately into structured, supportive, 'protective' footwear? Well, because a fair bit of well meaning modern research tells them to.
“With children, their bones aren’t fused in the early stages of development and they fuse as the child starts to grow. Before they’re ambulatory, children start to walk anywhere from 9 months, typically at a year, and some a little bit later at a year and a half,” explains Miguel Cunha, DPM, podiatrist at Gotham Footcare in Manhattan. “Before then you can have something soft, and once they start ambulating, you would want a hard sole because you want to support their feet or help avoid them injuring their feet.”
I was nodding along up until "and once they start ambulating..." but it is there our opinions diverge. Look, while it's true that we live in a world where we paved paradise to put up a Target and install reclaimed hardwood floors, these are not the only surfaces available to us. Where some parents hear "shod my child, shod him now," I feel there is a more compelling argument here for actively seeking out different walking textures from an early age in order to actively develop the natural structure of the foot. Foot professionals advocate for supportive, hard soles because they are responding to our modern way of living as if we have no control over our external environments. Interestingly, Cunha goes on to say "There are advantages to walking barefoot on carpet, grass, mats, or even walking in the sand, which can help strengthen the musculature of the foot, but definitely not on hard floors because the bones aren’t developed yet." So why, then, with all these textural options available to us (he mentioned quite a few, no?) are we reacting so strongly and solely to the one that we see causing an issue? Are we only allowing babies to walk on hardwood?
A 2009 Parents.com article (the first one that popped up when I searched for 'my baby has flat feet') acknowledges that "[a child's] foot and leg muscles aren't developed enough to support their arches when they first begin to stand," and then immediately goes on to suggest that "children with flat feet should use good, supportive shoes on most days (though sandals and flip-flops are okay occasionally) and have arch supports in all their shoes and sneakers." Everything about this hurts my soul. Responsible, well meaning parents are seeking out guidance, and the first thing they are told is a quick fix with far reaching consequences that aren't even discussed.
We build muscle by applying load. Because we structure our modern day sedentary lives in a way that separates movement as an additional thing we have to schedule (ie. exercise), we purposefully limit the loads we encounter the rest of our day by creating short cuts of convenience and investing in external tools for support and comfort. It's like we use an hour at the gym as justification for the other 23 hours of screen time, car time, desk time, couch time, memory foam mattresses + arch supports. We have outsourced natural movement + allocated it to a limited percentage of time. You're a runner? Great, but is running helping you to properly engage your hips as you clean your kitchen? Daily spin class? Good for you, but are you tilting forward on the bike from your pelvis or are your flexing at your lumbar spine? Would you even know/feel the difference before you herniate a lumbar disc? We fail to engage the natural functionality of all our parts in our everyday lives and then wonder why that one hour in the yoga studio or on the massage table isn't "fixing the pain" we feel daily. I mean, you're investing in self care, right? Why isn't it working?
Because we fail our bodies from the beginning. A house is only as good as the foundation it is built upon, and our bodies function is just as limited by limited feet. Genetic flat feet are genetic in that we pass down beliefs and behaviors, generation to generation, that perpetuate a problem of both nurture AND nature. But we have more control over both of these factors than we seem to acknowledge.
"Rigid flat foot," an abnormal connection within the tarsal bones, can be considered a birth defect, but it is incredibly rare. The more common condition is called "flexible flat foot," and it refers to the fact that newborns, not being terribly avid walkers in their first year or so (the lazy bums), have little to sometimes no engagement in the structures of the foot. But this makes sense. A baby's focus is on cuddling, observing new colors, developing facial recognition and generally making sense of this strange new world called Not-In-Mom. It is not on engaging their plantar calcaneonavicular ligament. Regardless, babies more often than not outgrow this flat footed condition without specific intervention or treatment as they start to use their feet. Their arch develops naturally with movement.
Phew! Right? Crisis averted.
But if they overcome this flat-footedness, why then do we see a proliferation of it (and tailor bunions + plantar fasciitis + bone spurs...) pop back up later in life? Remember what we did to those adorably developing feet as they began toddling around? We removed any organic chance they had to build and retain strength, structure + mobility on their own.
"... the arch of the foot is created by the simultaneous innervation of the intrinsic foot musculature (as opposed to the extrinsic) and the external rotators of the femurs..."
- Katy Bowman, Alignment Matters
Okay, let's break that down. You've been told your bunions are genetic. As an adult, you have "flat feet" (or hammer toes or bunions or insert your tarsal misalignment here) because as a child, you pawned off the work of your internal structures to external supports. More specifically, your parents facilitated this for you from a devastatingly young age (don't get too mad, they did it out of love). As soon as you started toddling, Mom + Dad put you in the cutest little shoes. I mean, tiny Chuck Taylors? Swoon. Regardless of style, your first 'walking' shoes likely had a hard, maybe even contoured footbed. In some cases, you may even have gotten ankle support. There are 26 bones and 33 joints in the human foot. And rather than sticking those toddler toes in some grass or sand or making them traverse long distances to forage for food + collect water for the village over all manner of uneven terrain, what do we do? We sock up, lace up + provide all the external support those adorable footsies could need to walk passively + separately from their external natural environment. In doing so, we also turn off the natural gait cycle that would include the natural external supports that is our upper leg. We neglect to ask the actual structure of the feet, knees + hips to work for themselves, a job you are surely going to want them to do later in life. Right out of the gate, we jump into convenience + comfort. We passively begin the chronic, lifelong pattern of relying on external support to ignore an internal issue, allocating the best agents for the job to the proverbial boiler room.
Not only do we deny our kids the chance to build the strength and mobility needed to move the multiple tiny parts in their feet, we then go on to instill improper gait patterns (that we learned by watching our own parents interact with the world around us) because it's simply how we were taught. It is a sad, cyclical system of failing to acknowledge the actual problem, addressing a symptom (not the cause), learning bad behaviors, believing those behaviors to be "genetic"or inevitable and passing those behaviors on to future generations so that they can perpetuate the cycle.
So go find some sand or grass or make an obstacle course of pillows and yoga blocks in the hallway or jump barefoot from rock to rock at the park, for the love and health of those cute little tootsies (obviously checking for any outdoor surroundings for serious threats like jagged edges or sharp objects).
Their medial arches will thank you in their high school valedictorian speech.