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
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
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
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 or 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
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. Her chiropractic
center is located in Oakland, CA. where she serves the greater Bay Area. You
can learn more about her work at
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