Barefoot Babies

The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source: http://www.uchicago.edu/features/anthropologist_explores_humanitys_first_steps/
The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source: http://www.uchicago.edu/features/anthropologist_explores_humanitys_first_steps/

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Tom is not yet walking. Really, this is a bit unfair on him. In fact, he took a few steps for the first time on his first birthday, and since then is growing in confidence, staggering between Mr Techno and I with his arms outstretched, giggling madly. He can stand pretty well by himself now, and has even begun to walk across (small) distances between items of furniture. In the park, he’ll happily push his buggy around, but it less keen to risk the wide open spaces.

Buggy pushing

standing baby

It’s great watching him gradually master this new skill, which will open a whole world to him. The appearance of the ability to walk well on two legs (bipedalism) is a key moment in human evolution. If you can walk on two legs, you have hands free to carry tools and food. If you can use tools, you can hunt, and carry greater amounts of food to a home base. With access to more highly nutritious foods (such as meat or sugary fruits), you can support greater brain function, leading to a growth in brain size (known as encephalisation). With greater thinking power, you can…well sit at a computer writing a blog (hurray!)

Okay, I may be simplifying a little bit. Causes for the appearance of evolutionary traits are rarely quite this straightforward. What is clear though is that bipedalism is the earliest ‘human’ trait to appear in the archaeological record, with fossils from as early as 3.7 million years ago already showing clear anatomical adaptations for bipedal walking. Key amongst these changes is the anatomy of the feet, including a higher arch, and changes in the position of the big toe, which tucks in close to the others, rather than being spread out to assist with balancing on branches*.

That anatomy is pretty unique. And pretty easy to damage through inappropriate footwear. Mine, for example, have sexy bunions developing on the big toe joints. After a waitressing stint as a student, I also have no feeling in one side of each big toe. Cheap, ill-fitting shoes are to blame for both. You can bet our ancestors weren’t jamming their feet into a pair of high heels (or £5 ballet pumps either). Shoes don’t survive well in the archaeological record being made from soft, organic matter that decays quickly, but the earliest foot coverings are likely to have been no more than strips of hide. Very flexible, though not very durable.

Babies’ and toddlers’ feet are even more vulnerable than adults to damage from inflexible footwear. Unlike adults, babies don’t have defined hard bones in their feet. Instead, their feet are made up of a soft bone almost like cartilage. This is very pliable, so very sensitive to distortion if confined in an inflexible shoe. The bones develop as they grow and begin to walk, but their feet will carry on developing into their mid-teens**.

Experts also believe that toddlers (and adults) walk better barefoot. It gives a better sense of balance, encourages better posture, and helps to strengthen muscles and joints. Tom has never worn shoes. In summer, he went completely barefoot. Now that the temperature has dropped, he wears socks. Sometimes, if it is especially cold outside, I’ll add a pair of soft knitted bootees (made by my lovely mother-in-law) over the top of the socks. I plan to keep it that way for as long as I can. But English weather being what it is, and with the irritating tendency of our green spaces to sprout unexpected broken glass or dog poo, I can see that a time will come when we will need an ‘emergency’ pair of footwear for use in cold weather or on sharp terrain. I’m putting off doing any research until he’s walking properly, but when the day comes I think I’ll be shelling out for a pair of those specially designed ‘barefoot’ shoes. Just to keep my little Wildling’s feet developing as naturally as possible, as long as possible.

barefoot baby

*I have references for this if anyone is interested, but thought academic journals might be a bit heavy for a post on babies’ shoes!

**Some good info on this is available from the website of East London podiatrist Tracy Byrne: http://www.tracybyrne.co.uk/children.html

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