How to Shop for Toddler Shoes: Advice from an Occupational Therapist


‘Tis the season when you have to turn over the closets and you realize things don’t fit! The cold mornings remind me that fall is creeping in, and we are supposed to be adding a layer here and there. I’m always amazed how people in New Hampshire stretch sandal season to the limit. The reality is, it’s shoe season around here. In my house, it’s a toddler shoes bonanza. 

My own toddler is screaming about his shoes. I’m that mom, squeezing him into sneakers from spring time, completely mortified surprised when the shoe store employee informs me his foot has grown 2 sizes. Whoops. No wonder he’s always throwing shoes at me from the backseat! Sorry, kiddo!

Shoes are one of the most important things they put on in the morning.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, the children that I treat are often clumsy, have balance difficulty, and poor motor skills. With that, they have to navigate busy classrooms, hallways with their own traffic patterns, and crowded stairways. What they wear on their feet can really impact how they function and move in the world.

Let me digress…

What I really want to tell you is that being barefoot is best. Developing the strength of muscles in the foot, the arches, the gripping power of the sole of the foot and the toes – all happens without shoes. Think about being barefoot on a balance beam or a fallen log, as compared to crossing it with shoes on – it would be so much easier barefoot. Kids get more sensory input to their feet when they are not wearing shoes. For babies and new walkers, this is essential to their development. Even for older toddlers and children, they should at least be barefoot in the house, leaving their germ-covered shoes at the door!

Truth: Babies Do Not Need Shoes

Dressed as little people, I know they look so cute! Shoes are really just a fashion accessory before they are walking, they don’t serve much function. Granted, in the winter, they need some protection and warmth. I loved putting my boys in fleece Zutano booties – they were the only thing that stayed on! Zutano has started making their booties with the grippers on the soles, perfect to keep a new mover from slipping on a tile or wood floor. Soft leather moccasins, like Robeez, are perfect first shoes. These types of shoes still allow babies to get that sensory input to their feet.

Tips for Selecting the Right Pair(s):

1. Get fitted. With the rate their feet grow, it’s important to update their size with a shoe specialist. Some little ones blow through their a size in just a couple of months. It’s important to know if their feet run wide or narrow, if they have a high instep, etc.

2. Fold them in half. The soles of kids shoes need to bend. For children who are in their days of climbing and running, you want them to be in a shoe that will mold to their foot and give them some structure and protection, but nothing rigid that will impede their movement.

3. Velcro is your friend. The shoe needs to fit snug, and stay on. As an OT, I am assessing independence and self-help skills in my clients. Putting on shoes and socks is the most basic dressing task that a child can do. Besides, you don’t want to be tying laces before rushing out the door in the morning.

Beware of Crocs!

I confess we have some; I love that my boys can get them on and be out the door in two seconds flat. For my family, there is a time and place for when they are safe – swim lessons and beach days. They generally aren’t good for a moving child. Some of the schools I consult for will not allow students to wear them.  If they’re running or climbing on the playground, Crocs can make kids prone to injury. On the whole, Crocs aren’t adjustable, and with the typical strap on the back, their foot slides all around inside. The same goes for flip-flops.

I hesitate to recommend certain brands in this post (although note a few of my faves in the next paragraph), as there is such a range of styles and pricing. You want to look for fit and function the most. Be careful with hand-me-downs, especially if they’re well worn. Shoes mold to the feet that wear them, and can be less ideal for that second child.

Stride Rite has nice options for younger kids, I like the soles of Livie and Luca, Umi and Pediped also. My new favorite brand is Plae – they are totally washable! Lately, my kids have one or two pairs of play shoes that fit well, and a dress shoe around the holidays. That’s it. Lord knows, neither one will be a shoe fashionista like their mama.

Finally – I leave you with a mom hack!

Years ago, a brand of kids’ shoes had smiley faces inside the heels, which were cut in half so that kids had to match the two sides to get them on the right foot. They were the best ever for my preschool clients who ALWAYS reversed their shoes. Now I cut stickers in half for my own boys and my clients to help foster their independence and shoe wearing for safe movement!