The easy answer is no, a child doesn't need shoes to begin taking independent steps. This advice is most true for a typically developing child, who is hitting gross motor milestones as expected. Many children may choose to crawl longer, due to their speed and efficiency with this form of mobility, while for other children with differing abilities, walking becomes an urgent goal for independence.
The important fact that all children are unique makes a generalized question like "Does your child need shoes to start walking?" difficult to answer with a simple yes or no. There is so much conflicting information out there on whether shoes are needed when kids start walking.
The American Pediatric Association advises against putting shoes on an infant's feet and says that babies don't need to wear shoes until they venture outside. In the therapy setting, I have seen the benefits to both barefoot and shoes-on play with different environmental setups. It can be overwhelming as a parent to know which resource to trust, but ultimately you need to make a decision on footwear that best supports the needs and abilities of your child.
Importance of Barefoot Play: Reasons a child shouldn't wear shoes
Without shoes or socks, a child's foot is having a sensory experience with the world around them. Bare feet get to feel different textures and temperatures when there is direct contact with ground. The body is then able to synthesize this sensory information to best respond to the environment around the child. The immediate and personal relationship that the child creates with the ground strengthens the neural connection between the brain and the feet of the child, allowing for better control when standing in the future. Covering the foot stifles this sensory feedback that is essential to foot development.
The muscles of the foot getting stronger are directly related to the increased sensory input from bare foot play. Sensory input, in combination with the increased proprioceptive input about where the body is in space without shoes on, improves a muscle’s response to changes in the environment. The muscles get practice responding to different surfaces’ firmness and textures, which allows motor learning for the foot to respond more accurately in the future. There are so many small muscles that provide ankle and foot stability, and there is so much motion that can occur at the foot and ankle as a result of all the bones and muscles. The feet need practice outside of shoes to create the best muscular stability across the foot and ankle joints.
The arches and joints of the foot and ankle form in response to forces put on the feet. The bones of the foot begin solidifying as a child begins to pull to stand, cruise and walk. Barefoot play helps these bones to calcify to meet the needs of the child's foot. If only in a shoe, the growth of the foot, both length and width wise, may be suppressed, leading to foot deformity. The compressing pressure of the shoe doesn't allow the foot to grow in all directions and limits the proper base needed for a child in standing.
Foot Protection and Support: Reasons a child should wear shoes
There are inevitable environmental considerations that necessitate wearing shoes. A shoe is going to protect a foot from unsuspecting dangers in new places. Shoes prevent injuries to the skin of the foot and potential infections. Shoes also protect the foot from hot or cold-tempered surfaces. When going out in the community, putting shoes on your child allow for increased opportunity for exploration without the fears from injuries.
Especially on dynamic surfaces, the muscle of the foot and ankle work overtime to keep a child balanced. When muscles at every joint of the leg are working to keep a child upright, the challenge can be too demanding to stay standing. Then, it is beneficial to provide some stability to the foot, allowing the muscles around the hip and knee to get stronger, before adding back additional demands of the ankle and foot. When a child is wearing a shoe, especially a higher top shoe that covers the ankle too, this decreases the variability of movement options of the legs, so the muscles higher up, or "up the chain" from the feet can best provide stability in standing. Shoes allow for isolated strengthening up the chain of the body, leading to better control when a child is barefoot again.
The arches and joints of the foot and ankle form in response to forces put on the feet. If a child has any difference in strength of the foot and ankle muscles, it may predispose a child's foot to be overpronated (flat footed) or supinated (rolling under itself). Wearing supportive shoes can promote appropriate arch height, alignment of bones and muscles, and prevent foot deformities. Excessive play on a weak foot will put atypical forces on the developing bones while wearing a supportive shoe will promote more typical bone development.
Children's feet are unique and decisions for footwear need to match the specific strengths and abilities of the child. There are benefits to barefoot play and shoe-on play, so how do you balance the benefits of both? I tell all of my families, spending time in shoes and time out of shoes allows maximal benefits for feet. Moderation and shared time between being in and out of shoes augments foot development and strength. Wearing shoes should never replace barefoot play, but it can enhance it.