Being pregnant is beautiful and amazing. It isn’t for the faint of heart, however.
What do we mean? A woman’s body goes through enormous changes during those nine months and not all of them are particularly fun. One of the places many women can experience uncomfortable changes is in their feet.
If you’re pregnant, you’ve probably already purchased your copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s a great title; knowing what to expect as your body goes through changes can make dealing with those changes a lot easier.
In the same spirit, we want to talk here about what to expect with your feet while you’re pregnant. We’ll cover how your feet are likely to change and why. Then we’ll share some research-backed insights about what might be the best shoes for pregnancy in light of these changes.
Changes in your body that affect your feet
There are three significant changes taking place in your body during pregnancy that affect your feet.
First, your body ramps up the production of certain hormones. Among them is relaxin, which has a particularly appropriate name. Among other things, it helps the joints and ligaments of your body to relax and loosen. It is thought that this helps make delivery a bit easier.
Second, you’ll be experiencing weight gain. Part of this is due to your growing baby, which is pretty obvious. Additional weight comes from other sources, too, however, like increased blood volume and breast size.
Finally, your body is going to produce more fluids in addition to more blood that can contribute to swelling, especially in your legs and feet.
How your feet change during pregnancy
With these three things happening at once, what are the effects on your feet?
One thing you’ve probably already heard about is that pregnant women’s feet tend to get a bit larger and you’ll need to start wearing a new shoe size. How large is the change? About a half size, according to one study. Why is that? Part of it has to do with excess fluid. If you’ve ever gone for a long hike, you know your feet can swell significantly even when you’re not pregnant.
Part of the answer, though, has to do with other changes that often happen in the structure of the foot. Pregnant women, especially in the third trimester, tend to have a flatter arch and to pronate a bit more (roll the foot towards the instep).
These changes are thought to result from both the increased weight being carried by the foot as well as the relaxin circulating in the blood. This flattening out of the foot lengthens it somewhat.
Yet another effect of the relaxin’s loosening of joints is that pregnant women’s ankles can feel a bit more unstable.
Finally, all that extra weight carried in the front of a woman’s body means her center of gravity shifts forward, resulting in changes in posture and gait. In other words, you walk a bit differently when you’re pregnant.
Okay, so what does this mean for maternity shoes?
Swollen feet, fallen arches, unstable ankles — none of this sounds very comfortable, does it? Unsurprisingly, foot pain is a common complaint during pregnancy. Can your choice of shoes help alleviate some of the issues? What should you look for?
The obvious stuff
Even though these things will probably occur to you anyway, it is worth mentioning them briefly. You’ll want comfortable shoes that feel good on your feet. High heels probably aren’t your best bet.
They aren’t the best shoes for pregnancy for another reason, too. Remember what we pointed out about your center of gravity? That little passenger hitching a ride on your front is going to want to tip you forward. You’ll naturally start to lean backward in compensation. Elevating your heels will make it harder to maintain your balance.
Also plan to give your swollen feet room. As already noted, they’ll probably get a bit longer. They may also get wider. Look for pregnancy shoes with a wide toe box that provides your feet with some room to spread out.
Finally, remember that balance and stability are going to be more of an issue than you’re used to. A good, non-slip rubber sole is important, too.
What about arch support?
As we noted, among the changes many women experience are a decrease in arch height and a tendency toward increased pronation of the foot. With loosening tendons and ligaments along with increasing weight, it seems like the structure of your foot could use some additional support.
Following this line of thinking, you might run across the advice to choose supportive shoes with superior arch support and stiffness or even to add inserts or orthotics. This advice sounds reasonable. To date, however, there isn’t any scientific evidence to back it up. The one study we could find that attempted this kind of intervention didn’t find any difference between the control group and the group that had been given orthotics to wear.
We want to be really clear: we aren’t doctors and we’re not qualified to give medical advice. By all means, talk to your podiatrist if you have any issues with your feet during your pregnancy. However, we are a bit skeptical that adding artificial arch and heel support is the best way to deal with the challenges your feet face during pregnancy.
Leaving aside the context of pregnancy for the moment, research on the general population has shown that the use of arch supports can actually weaken the muscles of the arch. If you think about it, this makes sense. The job of the muscles in the arch of the foot is to maintain the shape and strength of the arch, which is a natural shock absorber and spring.
In contrast, researchers have concluded that wearing minimalist footwear or going unshod helps to strengthen the muscles of the arch. It seems to us, then, that your body has a natural way of dealing with the strain of added weight on your feet — it grows stronger to provide the support needed. The key, though, is that the muscles have to be allowed to work in order to be strengthened. Stiff artificial support in your shoes essentially prevents this. By the way, we also mentioned instability in the ankle as being something pregnant women occasionally experience. Should you look for some kind of ankle support, then? Our thinking is that the same logic applies. Look for ways to strengthen the muscles that provide natural ankle support.
Could barefoot shoes be the best shoes for pregnancy?
If you’re already familiar with barefoot shoes, you won’t be surprised to hear us conclude that they could be a great shoe for you to try during your pregnancy. They feature a wide toe box to give swollen feet the extra room they need. They’re super comfy shoes.
They are also “zero drop,” meaning they lack an elevated heel that would tend to make it harder for you to balance as your center of gravity shifts to the front.
Finally, they are designed with the express purpose of letting your feet move as naturally as possible (while still providing protection). They are lightweight shoes with highly flexible soles. A barefoot-style shoe is the only shoe that will let your muscles work, strengthening them to help handle the additional stresses your pregnant body will place on your feet.
Interested in exploring what’s available? We’re big fans of Xero shoes. You can see their collection for women here. They have lots of styles of casual shoes for everyday wear. You might just find your new favorite comfortable pair of maternity shoes.
Whichever shoes you decide are the best pregnancy shoes for you — whether it be barefoot shoes, flip flops, slip-on shoes, running shoes, or even high heels — we hope your pregnancy is a sweet time — discomfort notwithstanding.