Buying shoes for a baby or child can be challenging, because children's shoe needs are quite different than those of adults. Shoes in infant, child and youth sizes might look similar, but they should have very different qualities to appropriately protect a child's foot at each stage of development. Doctors at the the Foot and Ankle Center of Washington recommend that babies don't wear shoes at all, while shoes for toddlers and older children should accommodate their growing feet and changing gait.
In the United States, infant and children's shoes come in sizes 0 to 13. Baby shoes up to size 6 are often marked with month ranges in addition to, or instead of, numerical sizes. So a size 2 might be labeled as “3-6 months.” European sizes are measured in centimeters, and the labels generally start with size 16 as the smallest size, though they may also be marked with month ranges.
After size 13, U.S. shoe sizes start again at size 1, when the child moves into youth-sized shoes. This is usually when the feet are 7 to 7 ½ inches long. Numbered youth sizes continue into adult sizes. U.K. shoe sizes are numbered similarly to American sizes, but the numbers refer to slightly different sizes. For example, a shoe that is 8 inches long is a U.S. size 2 and a U.K. size 1. European sizes remain in centimeters regardless of the size or type of shoe.
Until a baby starts walking, hard-soled shoes are unnecessary. Stores sell tiny infant-sized athletic shoes, but a stiff shoe can actually harm a baby's foot because it may constrict movement and growth. The South African Podiatry Association points out that a baby's foot only has three small bones. The rest is cartilage and tendons, which can take up to 21 years to become hard bone. For a baby's feet and legs to develop properly, the baby needs to be able to wiggle and spread his toes. A baby should be left barefoot as much as possible. Any shoes a baby wears for warmth should be soft all around with plenty of space for movement in the front, back and sides.
When a child starts walking, shoes may be needed to protect the feet outdoors. While a toddler should still go barefoot as much as possible, soft shoes with thick but flexible protective soles may be worn. A toddler's gait differs from an adult's in that the child steps toe-to-heel. Hard shoes can prevent the foot's muscles from working properly and smash the toes as the child walks, which could lead to deformities in the arch and toes later.
Starting around three years old, a child begins walking heel-to-toe. Many children start wearing hard-soled shoes around this age. The foot is still soft and underdeveloped, and the shape is different from that of an adult's foot. Children's feet are shaped like a triangle, with narrow heels and the widest part at the toes. The widest point of an adult foot is at the ball of the foot. Until a child starts wearing youth-sized shoes, the shape of the shoe should accommodate the shape of the foot with a wider width. The shoe should fit snugly at the heel with plenty of wiggle room for the toes, which spread even wider while the child walks.
Youth shoes are more similar to adult shoes, and they have many of the same problems, such as pointed toes or high heels, particularly on girls' shoes. With the unnatural position of the foot when wearing high heels, these shoes can create damage to leg tendons and nerve damage to toes, according to the American Osteopathic Association. Because a child's foot is still developing, the shoe should not be constrictive in any way, and it should accommodate the changing shape of the child's foot. Youth shoes are generally slightly narrower than child shoes and they should be flat and lightweight. They shouldn't fit too snugly around the heel and sides, and there should be enough room from front to back to allow the foot to move as the child walks.