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Most of us are born with trouble-free feet. Yet, alarmingly, three out of every four adults have some kind of foot problem. Most of these ailments have their origins in childhood, but with care and attention, and with regular checkups, those baby feet need never turn into problem feet. Considering what we expect of our feet throughout our lives, care in the early stages is a sound investment for the future.
A baby's foot is not simply a smaller version of an adult's; it is shorter and wider, and tapers towards the heel. At birth, the twenty six bones are made of cartilage, which, along with ligaments and blood vessels, will eventually make up the adult foot. During this period they are soft and pliable and susceptible to damage. As the foot grows, the cartilage 'ossifies', in other words, changes into bone.
The foot grows in spurts, not at a steady pace, and during the first year, reaches almost half its adult size. It will take until the late teens before it is fully developed.
As the feet of the very young are soft they are easily mis-shapen. It is very important that they be allowed to develop naturally, without being distorted in any way. To minimise possible risk:
- Keep bedclothes loose-fitting and light, so that the feet are not restricted;
- Encourage your babies to exercise their feet in kicking or similar actions. This will help develop their muscles. Allowing them to lie uncovered will help;
- Do not restrict feet in stretch hosiery or tight sleeping suits. Many babies' toes are curly at birth, but most straighten naturally.
Parents are delighted when their children take their first steps, but it is important not to force children into walking. They will start when they are good and ready (between ten and eighteen months).
Shoes aren't necessary in the early stages. In fact, the less covering the better, while they are safely indoors. Walking barefoot is, after all, the natural way, and allows the foot to develop and strengthen the muscles they will need for getting about. You don't catch colds or chills through your feet so having the feet uncovered is to be encouraged, though don't let your children walk in dirty areas where there is a risk or injury or infection.
Once walking is established and their heels are in contact with the ground, children are ready for their first shoes. Always ensure that shoes are purchased in a reputable children's shoe shop, where children's feet are measured.
The way a child walks can say a lot about whether there are any problems. Examination by a State Registered Chiropodist should detect any underlying defects which need treatment. The earlier problems are detected, the earlier they can be treated, and it is not unusual to treat children as young as one or two years of age. After seven years the foot has already developed considerably, and is not so easy to correct if there is structural abnormality.
The State Registered Chiropodist will be able to prescribe exercises, if necessary, and corrective appliances which may alter shape and structure, and which will fit easily into shoes.
One of the most common complaints is toeing in or out. Tripping could be the first sign. This can be corrected through exercises, and using devices to encourage the foot back into a normal position. Variations of structure or development may need referral to a paediatrician as these problems frequently have their origins in the hip. Your State Registered Chiropodist will be able to offer appropriate advice.
'Flat feet' are also a common worry. Most babies appear flat footed but this usually disappears when they begin to stand and walk. If it persists, and produces problems, it is advisable to consult a State Registered Chiropodist who will be able to provide an appropriate foot support if it is required.
As children grow and their feet continue to develop, it is advisable to check shoe and sock size every few weeks, and make sure they haven't outgrown their shoes. Although the majority of foot problems are caused by injury, deformity, illness or hereditary factors, improper footwear or hosiery can aggravate any problems that already exist. Correctly fitting shoes, wide enough to allow the toes to move, and with laces or buckles that keep the heels in place help feet to develop naturally. Other ways to keep problems at bay are:
- Wash feet every day in warm soapy water. Dry thoroughly, especially between the toes, and use a foot powder;
- Trim toe nails regularly straight across, and do not cut them too short. Do not cut down the sides as this can lead to ingrowing nails;
- Don't assume that if your children don't complain, there's no problem. Children often can't feel the damage being done, so inspect their feet regularly, at least every bath time.
If a child does complain, check for areas of pressure or verrucae (warts) - a viral infection common among children. Athlete's Foot, a fungal infection on the skin between the toes, is also a common problem. If these problems persist, or for advice about treating them, see a State Registered Chiropodist.