In this article, originally shared in Pathways magazine, Kacie Flegal explores the neurological benefits that walking barefoot has on developing minds. In our Parent & Child program, parents and caregivers learn about child development through guided activities, group discussions and engagement with their little ones. Learn more about our weekly Parent & Child classes.
How keeping little feet in the buff encourages a strong foundation for optimal brain and nervous system development.
By Kacie Flegal, D.C.
There is nothing more wondrous in life than watching with awe as babies begin to learn and explore the world in which they live. With innocent joy and excitement, the newness they experience allows for a profound connection within their surroundings and within themselves.
The sensory system is the primary system that sets the foundation for higher brain centers to grow upon. We are familiar with the five basic senses: touch, taste, vision, hearing, and smell. It is through these basic pathways that babies create neurological connections and the perception of life outside of the womb.
Two equally important sensory systems, which aren’t as commonly recognized, begin to take on a dominant role as babies begin to coordinate movements and have greater interactions with the world. These two systems are known as the proprioceptive system and the vestibular system.
Proprioception is the ability to perceive the motion and position of our bodies in space and is generated by receptors located within our joints, connective tissue, and muscles. When activated by pressure and movement, proprioceptors send direct signaling to the brain telling it how the body is oriented.
The vestibular system is the creation of balance and coordination as changes in center of gravity, posture, and head position shift. As babies gain awareness through the five primary senses, they begin generating deliberate movements and gradually learn to hold up their heads, roll over, sit up, crawl, and eventually start walking.
Encouraging enjoyable activities that stimulate the basic senses is, of course, important, yet we may underestimate the value in supporting proprioceptive and vestibular activities as well. One of the simplest ways to motivate proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible!
Feet are one of the most sensory-rich parts of the human body. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch, and there are large concentrations of proprioceptors in the joints and muscles of the feet. In fact, the feet alone have as many proprioceptors as the entire spinal column!
This is exciting news, yet we live in a culture where wearing shoes through most of the day is the norm and, thus, we inhibit the establishment of strong neurological pathways and connections. Parents often put shoes on their babies even before the little ones start walking, which can keep little feet restricted from the normal movement and exploration that is needed to prime the pathway for when they become mobile.
Then, as babies begin to walk, they are accustomed to having limited movement and a barrier between the sensitive soles of their feet and the ground. Proprioceptors* are not allowed to be optimally stimulated, and vestibular input is inhibited as the little muscles and joints in the feet cannot accommodate to the changing terrain of the surface they are walking on.
When a child is allowed to be barefoot, her tactile pathways feel the surface of the ground, proprioceptors respond to pressure, and the terrain creates slight imbalances that create neuromuscular strength, spacial orientation, balance, and coordination.
It is obvious that when our littles one are playing in cold or harsher environments, we want to protect them and keep them safe, but with guidance and a soft patch of grass, dirt, or wet leaves available, encourage babies to discover how great it feels to tromp around with naked feet! As a result, you will permit them a great platform for the development of higher brain centers responsible for emotional control, problem solving, language, social skills, and self-assurance.
Another benefit to keeping babies barefoot is the encouragement of presence of mind and conscious awareness. As the little pads of babies’ feet feel, move, and balance on the surface that they are exploring, the information sent to the brain from tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular pathways quiet, or inhibit, other extraneous sensory input. This creates focus and awareness of walking and moving through space; babies get more tuned in to their surroundings.
This is an important message for adults as well! It is never too late to encourage the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in our own bodies as we continue to grow new neural connections, even as we age. Often, it is the proprioceptive and vestibular systems that become inhibited as adults. We lose balance and focus in our bodies and our lives and, as a result, may lose profound connections to our environment, ourselves, and other people.
When was the last time you took off your shoes and walked barefoot in the dirt, the grass, or a puddle of water? Encourage yourself along with your children to explore, play, and be free to let the world tickle your senses! Not only does it feel amazing to intimately connect with the earth beneath your feet, but walking barefoot can whisk you back to your own childhood, where you can re-experience the world as a new and exhilarating place…just as babies do!
Dr. Kacie Flegal, D.C. is a vitalistic chiropractor and member of the International Chiropractic Pediatrics Association (ICPA). She specializes in pre- and post-natal care, pediatrics, and serving individuals with sensory integration challenges. Dr. Kacie is Webster Technique Certified through the ICPA a certified Doula through the Natural Birth Institute. You can learn more about her work at
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception is our body’s awareness of muscles, joints, and tendons as they move and give us information about the location of our body and body parts in space. Proprioception allows us to form a muscle memory of practiced movements, such as reaching for an object, running, dancing, riding a bike, using a hammer, a spoon or a pencil. Movement and lifting objects strengthen our sense of proprioception.
What is the Vestibular System?
The role of the vestibular system is to relay information to the brain as to where a person is in space, as related to gravity; whether they are moving or still, if they are moving how quickly, and in what direction. The vestibular system gathers that information from a set of fluid filled canals and a sac-like structure in the inner ear. These structures respond to movement, change in direction, change of head position, and gravitational pull. Without efficient vestibular processing, your child may appear to be clumsy and have trouble staying on their feet during routine play. The vestibular system helps a child to coordinate both sides of their body together for activities including riding a bicycle, catching a ball, zipping a coat, or cutting with scissors.