Q&A: toddler shoes

Amanda writes:

"Here's my question: How much can you scrimp and save on toddler shoes without stunting your kid's foot development?  We paid $50 for a pair of size 21 Eccos in April; her size 20s had lasted 4 months.  Well, a scant 2 months later, our kid is a size 22.  The prospect of spending at least $300 on baby shoes this year is daunting.  Now, I know that most parents don't buy overpriced little Italian sandals for their kids.  But once you've started down this path, it's hard to stop ... and the salespeople in the shops don't exactly give impartial advice. That's why I'm turning to you.  What exactly do designer baby shoes like Stride-Rite or Ecco do for a kid's foot, and are non-designer shoes going to stunt my kid's foot?  Are other shoes OK once a kid is a "seasoned walker"?  What exactly is a "seasoned walker" anyway -- someone who trots?  Runs?  Gallops?  Spins in circles until she's dizzy, then stands up and spins again?  Would I be a bad parent if I bought her flip-flops or jellies at 18 months?  And what about buying used shoes at the local consignment shop -- is that an absolute no-no? Bottom line is, if I can cut our mushrooming shoe budget in half, that would be nice. I'm too embarrassed to leave a question like this on my pediatrician's voicemail, so I'm turning to you."

This American shoe marketing machine has been working for years and years. My mom remembers her MIL warning her that if she didn't get "good, hardsoled" shoes for me when I was a baby I'd never learn to walk. So this baby shoe guilt thing has been going on for years.

But the thing is that kids learn to walk correctly all over the world all the time, even if they don't have any shoes at all. (They may get pinworm or tetanus or other diseases from not having shoes to protect their feet, but they aren't having stride problems.) What we were told by our pediatrician (and other friends also heard from their peds) is that shoes for new walkers need to be extremely flexible, as close to bare feet as you can get while still protecting the feet (see: pinworms). The test is whether you can bend the sole of the shoe in the palm of one hand. If you can't, the sole is too rigid for a kid under 3 or so.

So, if you're looking for a shoe that's more flexible than supportive, you may be better off with cheaper shoes, depending on the style. Certainly Robeez/Bobux type leather-soled shoes (or the cheaper versions on Ebay) are great for learning walkers. We've had great luck with finding nice, flexible soles at Target. Payless seems to be hit or miss, with some styles with nice flexible soles and others with soles that don't bend at all. (Light-up shoes have very rigid, heavy soles, so kids should probably wait until they've been walking for a long time to get those.)

Personally, I can't imagine paying more than $30 for a pair of shoes for a child (winter boots excluded). The general rule is that kids go up a half size (American sizes) every 3 months. I think most kids have two pairs of shoes that fit at most times (a pair of sneakers and a pair of dress shoes, or a pair of sneakers and a pair of sandals, etc.). If you're using a pair of shoes for 3 months in rotation with another pair, and you're looking for flexible soles, that pretty much rules out expensive shoes for most families' budgets. I realize that most girls have even more shoes than boys do, so that means more than two pairs in any given size. Unless at least some of those shoes are reasonably-priced, you could spend your child's future inheritance on shoes.

The reason not to buy used shoes is that those shoes have probably already formed to the feet of the first owner. But if the shoes are hardly used, there's no reason not to use them on another kid. But since there's no real physical reason to get expensive shoes, you should only haunt the consignment stores if you actually enjoy it.

If it were me I'd bring on the jellies.

My two data points: My 4-year-old currently has a pair of hard-soled light-up sneakers from Target ($15) and a pair of somewhat flexible-soled Spiderman sandals from Payless ($12). My 13.5-month-old, who has been walking for a month, has one pair of mismatched Robeez knock-offs (he tossed one of each pair out of the stroller before I figured it out) from Ebay ($11 each pair) and two pairs of water sandals (flexible soles, easy to put on, and waterproof) from Children's Place ($15 for both pairs).