Guest post by David Heitmann, DC, MS – Foot Restoration Specialist – Dr. Heitmann can be contacted through his Facebook group: Functional Foot Solutions.
We all want what best for our kids. We want them to grow up to their full potential. We imagine them jumping around and playing and having fun. It’s also a safe bet you don’t want your kids to grow up with any pains or problems with jumping, running, or walking. But did you know most parents unintentionally hurt the growth of their kids’ feet and it leads exactly to that problem?
The downstream effect is drastic when we put it all together:
- One of the immediate problems we see is skyrocketing rates of shin splints, heel pain, and calf pains between the ages of 8-16.
- On a longer timeline, plantar fasciitis and heel pain are present in 25% of the population with an estimated 2 million people affected each year!
- Billions are spent on healthcare and corrective orthotics to help people with their foot-related issues and yet more people are in pain than ever before.
All of these problems stem from the parents not allowing for the proper development of their kids’ feet.
But before you feel bad from this realization, you have to understand it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. Its unintentional because you have been misinformed. In the race to give our kids the best, we seemed to have missed out on hearing about a few key steps in how to actually successfully raise healthy little ones.
What we do hear about, and what we are sold to believe, are the things that make companies money. We have to understand these companies are selling us on a solution to the problem as a band-aid. They are selling products to literally put on and around the problem instead of solving the actual problem. But the marketing has taken hold in our culture and we follow their lead.
With an exponential growth rate in foot pain and problems, clearly we have been doing it wrong.
Where are we going wrong and how can we fix it?
Problem #1: We make them stand and walk faster than their body develops
Oddly enough, most parents are really competitive when it comes to showing off their kid’s development. Parents are proud that their kid walks faster than the other kids. Even just a regular check-up with the doctor is a competitive visit…how tall is your kid compared to the others, how much do they weigh compared to the others. Parents are constantly surrounded by this mantra of getting them to develop faster than their counterparts.
But this is where the problem starts. The marketing of any of the products that allow them to stand, move, and jump around takes advantage of the parents who want to do better. These products are specifically marketed to feed that competition instead of doing what’s right. They say things like “get little “X” into this jumper to develop their leg strength and have them grow up big and tall.” Unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth. To understand this, we have to look at the nervous system, not the muscles and joints. As we grow it’s actually the coordination of the nervous system telling our muscles how to move and just like everything else in our life, we learn it in phases of experience. There is so much truth in the old saying “you have to learn how to crawl before you learn how to walk”
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS!
The human body only adapts to the things it experiences. In other words, if we don’t learn how to crawl properly, our arms won’t know how to swing while we walk. It’s vitally important our bodies experience and master every step along with way through our development in order to get the proper sequence of things working right together. Our body needs to learn how to be coordinated. If we start to skip steps, or we don’t spend enough time on one of the steps, we miss out on a coordination and growth phase. When we miss out we end up with problems down the road.
Problem #2: We put our kids in shoes and have them only walk on flat ground.
Our modern day conveniences of flat ground, smooth floors, and easy access to shoes has turned into a nightmare for our bodies. As you can imagine, we were never meant to be on flat surfaces. It’s rare in nature to have smooth flat ground. We’ve been around for centuries, and yet in the past 100 years suddenly there are floors and concrete everywhere we step.
Shoes amplify this problem. Most modern day shoes are like putting a cast on your kids’ feet. They don’t allow the kids’ feet to bend, and even more important, they don’t allow them to feel the ground. One of the most important aspects of a kid being barefoot is to get the stimulation of the ground on the bottom of the foot. Put these two equations together and we have a recipe for disaster. The kid never gets stimulation on the foot, nor does the foot have to work at balancing on the flat surface. The shoe and flat ground provide all the support like a concrete foundation of a house, making the foot useless in walking around. Because the foot doesn’t have to do the work, the rest of the joints don’t get the sensory information they need on how and when to move. Eventually they learn how to shuffle walk instead of actually walking.
This becomes really apparent when they start to hit middle school age. It’s easy to spot kids who have worn too many shoes because they don’t know how to control their body when they run, jump and play. It’s always been chalked off to the awkwardness of puberty, however the reality is their body was never taught how to move. There is no coordination of the nervous system with their joints and muscles. When things don’t know how to move properly, they become painful and injured with things like shin splints and all the other problems we are seeing more of these days.
Problem #3: Parents don’t pay attention to when the growth spurt of the foot happens.
Now that we know most modern shoes are like a cast on our kids feet, we can start to see an even bigger problem if they hit a growth spurt and the parents don’t realize it. Ever see a kid poke their toe through the shoe? You guessed it; the parents waited WAY too long to get them into the next size of shoe.
While your kids’ feet are developing, they won’t feel restrictive types of pain. It’s something they have no perception of during this period of rapid growth. Unless something is massively wrong (like a defect in the shoe), they won’t feel it. If they can’t sense a problem with the fit of the shoe, they absolutely won’t know to tell you their shoe is getting too tight.
So the classic example is for the parents to wait until the shoe falls apart or has holes in it as an indicator the next size shoe is needed. Unfortunately, the damage is already done to the development of the foot. This squeezing doesn’t allow for proper muscle activation and if you don’t use it you lose it. Nervous system sensation decreases and their brain has a much harder time with putting coordination together because it’s not getting all the feedback from the feet it needs.
A step in the right direction: the practical approach to preventing pain and problems
Return to the natural way
As your child develops, you want to encourage being barefoot as much as possible, and even more so in the grass, rocks, and dirt for the full stimulation. Do a quick check of the area to make sure where they are playing doesn’t have anything you don’t want them to get into, but let them just be human and play. Let nature be the exercise equipment!
I joke with my patients to “push your kid down.” But it’s absolutely true. Not in a literal sense of course, but keeping them on the ground as long as possible during development so they can crawl, fall, and roll around. When they start to walk, letting them fall down and not helping them back up. Don’t put them into the jumpers and scooters so they stay upright.
You have to think long-term about their health, which can sometimes be hard in the short-term.
For those of us past puberty there is hope to reverse time! At any age we can go back to these concepts and have massive health benefits. Yes, even crawling on the ground in the grass can help you get rid of your pain, no matter your age. Getting barefoot as much as possible and getting the stimulation on the bottom of your feet will help re-stimulate the nervous system and activate all your joints and muscles.
When shoes are needed, this is what I recommend
Thankfully we are starting to see more natural solutions in the marketplace when it comes to buying shoes. We want to focus on a two key concepts. One is we want flexibility so our kids can bend their feet and feel the ground. Two is the toe box has to be wide enough to allow for the foot to splay as far as it wants to. Without these things, we are restricting growth and setting them up for pain in the long-term.
When it comes to our kids’ health we want the best.
For a list of recommended shoe brands, click here.
Contact Dr. Heitmann through his Facebook group: Functional Foot Solutions.